Exercise as 'precision medicine' for insulin resistance and its progression to type 2 diabetes: a research review

BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2018 Nov 23:10:21. doi: 10.1186/s13102-018-0110-8. eCollection 2018.


Type 2 diabetes and obesity epidemics are in effect in the United States and the two pathologies are linked. In accordance with the growing appreciation that 'exercise is medicine,' it is intuitive to suggest that exercise can play an important role in the prevention and/or treatment of these conditions. However, if exercise is to truly be considered as a viable alternative to conventional healthcare prevention/treatment strategies involving pharmaceuticals, it must be prescribed with similar scrutiny. Indeed, it seems reasonable to posit that the recent initiative calling for 'precision medicine' in the US standard healthcare system should also be applied in the exercise setting. In this narrative review, we consider a number of explanations that have been forwarded regarding the pathological progression to type 2 diabetes both with and without the concurrent influence of overweight/obesity. Our goal is to provide insight regarding exercise strategies that might be useful as 'precision medicine' to prevent/treat this disease. Although the etiology of type 2 diabetes is complex and cause/consequence characteristics of associated dysfunctions have been debated, it is well established that impaired insulin action plays a critical early role. Consequently, an exercise strategy to prevent/treat this disease should be geared toward improving insulin sensitivity both from an acute and chronic standpoint. However, research suggests that a chronic improvement in insulin sensitivity only manifests when weight loss accompanies an exercise intervention. This has resonance because ectopic fat accumulation appears to represent a central component of disease progression regardless of whether obesity is also part of the equation. The cause/consequence characteristics of the relationship between insulin resistance, pathological fat deposition and/or mobilsation, elevated and/or poorly-distributed lipid within myocytes and an impaired capacity to use lipid as fuel remains to be clarified as does the role of muscle mitochondria in the metabolic decline. Until these issues are resolved, a multidimensional exercise strategy (e.g., aerobic exercise at a range of intensities and resistance training for muscular hypertrophy) could provide the best alternative for prevention/treatment.

Keywords: Critical power/velocity; Ectopic lipid accumulation; Fatmax; High-intensity interval training; Insulin resistance; Intramyocellular lipid; Metabolically-healthy obesity; Mitochondrial dysfunction; Obesity; Type 2 diabetes.

Publication types

  • Review