Exercise Helps Prevent Diabetes in Overweight and Obese Children

by Dr Sam Girgis on September 21, 2012

Childhood obesity continues to be major problem in the United States and throughout the world, and can result in negative health consequences.  Childhood obesity increases the risk of developing diabetes and other obesity related disorders for children and adolescents.  These problems have previously only been seen in adults with obesity.  The childhood obesity epidemic has caused type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure to occur in children as well.  Several public service campaigns have been developed to reverse the growing trend of childhood obesity.  These include First Lady Michele Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the National Football League’s Play 60 campaign.  Physical activity and exercise can help prevent obesity in our children and hopefully reverse the current childhood obesity epidemic.

Researchers, led by Dr. Catherine Davis of Georgia Health Sciences University, have found that physical activity and exercise can lessen diabetes risk by decreasing insulin resistance, general adiposity, and visceral adiposity in sedentary overweight and obese children.  The results of their study were published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  The researchers used a randomized controlled efficacy trial using 222 overweight or obese sedentary children aged 7 to 11 years of age to study the effect of exercise on diabetes risk.  Study participants were randomly assigned to 20 minutes of exercise daily for 5 days per week (n=71) or 40 minutes of exercise daily for 5 days per week (n=73).  The aerobic exercise programs lasted 13 weeks. The control group (n=78) had only their usual physical activity.  The researchers found that 20 minutes and 40 minutes of daily exercise for 5 days per week resulted in 18 percent and 22 percent reduction in insulin resistance, respectively.  The exercise groups also lost more total body and visceral fat and were more physically fit, compared to the control group.

The authors wrote, “Twenty minutes of aerobic exercise per school day for just a few months showed benefits versus the control condition on insulin resistance, fitness, and fatness. Thus, measurable health benefits could be achieved through a daily dose of safe, vigorous physical activity, which could be provided during the school day in daily fitness-focused physical education classes, recess, and other physical activity opportunities”

The authors also wrote, “Schools are the logical focus for such public health interventions. An ancillary study showed benefits of this exercise intervention on cognition and mathematics achievement, which may increase its appeal to educators”.

The authors concluded, “… in this randomized controlled trial, 13 weeks of 20- or 40- min/d aerobic training resulted in improvement in diabetes risk as estimated by insulin resistance, fitness, and general and visceral adiposity in sedentary overweight or obese children regardless of race or sex, with a dose response gradient for insulin resistance and adiposity”.

This study clearly shows that physical activity is important in children in order to prevent the childhood obesity and slow the growing childhood obesity epidemic.  In addition, exercise can decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in children.  There was a dose response effect, with more physical activity conferring additional decreases in insulin resistance and diabetes risk.  There have been several schools throughout the United States that have eliminated or attempted to eliminate gym class in order to gain an academic advantage with more classroom studies.  We should not allow gym classes to be cancelled.  This study shows that physical education class is extremely important for the health of our children.  Regular exercise can prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes in children, and can even have beneficial effects on their academic performance.



Catherine L. Davis et al. “Exercise Dose and Diabetes Risk in Overweight and Obese Children: A Randomized Controlled TrialJAMA 2012; 308(11):1103-1112. doi:10.1001/2012.jama.10762

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