Background: Physical activity is recommended by physicians to patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), because it increases sensitivity to insulin. Whether physical activity is effective in preventing this disease is not known.
Methods: We used questionnaires to examine patterns of physical activity and other personal characteristics in relation to the subsequent development of NIDDM in 5990 male alumni of the University of Pennsylvania. The disease developed in a total of 202 men during 98,524 man-years of follow-up from 1962 to 1976.
Results: Leisure-time physical activity, expressed in kilocalories expended per week in walking, stair climbing, and sports, was inversely related to the development of NIDDM: The incidence rates declined as energy expenditure increased from less than 500 kcal to 3500 kcal. For each 500-kcal increment in energy expenditure, the age-adjusted risk of NIDDM was reduced by 6 percent (relative risk, 0.94; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.90 to 0.98). This association remained the same when the data were adjusted for obesity, hypertension, and a parental history of diabetes. The association was weaker when we considered weight gain between the time of college attendance and 1962 (relative risk, 0.95; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.90 to 1.00). The protective effect of physical activity was strongest in persons at highest risk for NIDDM, defined as those with a high body-mass index, a history of hypertension, or a parental history of diabetes. These factors, in addition to weight gain since college, were also independent predictors of the disease.
Conclusions: Increased physical activity is effective in preventing NIDDM, and the protective benefit is especially pronounced in persons at the highest risk for the disease.