Context: Although many studies suggest that physical activity may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, the role of moderate-intensity activity such as walking is not well understood.
Objectives: To examine the relationship of total physical activity and incidence of type 2 diabetes in women and to compare the benefits of walking vs vigorous activity as predictors of subsequent risk of type 2 diabetes.
Design and setting: The Nurses' Health Study, a prospective cohort study that included detailed data for physical activity from women surveyed in 11 US states in 1986, with updates in 1988 and 1992.
Participants: A total of 70,102 female nurses aged 40 to 65 years who did not have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or cancer at baseline (1986).
Main outcome measure: Risk of type 2 diabetes by quintile of metabolic equivalent task (MET) score, based on time spent per week on each of 8 common physical activities, including walking.
Results: During 8 years of follow-up (534, 928 person-years), we documented 1419 incident cases of type 2 diabetes. After adjusting for age, smoking, alcohol use, history of hypertension, history of high cholesterol level, and other covariates, the relative risks (RRs) of developing type 2 diabetes across quintiles of physical activity (least to most) were 1.0, 0.77, 0.75, 0.62, and 0.54 (P for trend <.001); after adjusting for body mass index (BMI), RRs were 1.0, 0.84, 0.87, 0.77, and 0.74 (P for trend = .002). Among women who did not perform vigorous activity, multivariate RRs of type 2 diabetes across quintiles of MET score for walking were 1.0, 0.91,0.73, 0.69, and 0.58 (P for trend <.001). After adjusting for BMI, the trend remained statistically significant (RRs were 1.0, 0.95, 0.80, 0.81, 0.74; P for trend = .01). Faster usual walking pace was independently associated with decreased risk. Equivalent energy expenditures from walking and vigorous activity resulted in comparable magnitudes of risk reduction.
Conclusions: Our data suggest that greater physical activity level is associated with substantial reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes, including physical activity of moderate intensity and duration.