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Media Release

January 15 2007

Cycling better than walking for people with type two diabetes

A University of South Australia study shows that people with type two diabetes might be better off choosing cycling for exercise rather than walking.

People with diabetes often encounter major health problems with their lower limbs due to a lack of sensation, reduced circulation, and increased pressure through the feet. This that can lead to ulcers and other complications, according to senior lecturer in human movement at UniSA’s School of Health Sciences, Dr Annette Raynor, who is supervising the research.

“The aim of our study was to determine if a cycling program would improve the sensation and blood flow through the feet, and produce lower levels of pressure than the exercise mode that is normally prescribed for these individuals, namely walking,” Dr Raynor said.

Women aged between 60 to 70 years with type two diabetes took part in a 12 week exercise program, cycling for 20 minutes twice a week at moderate intensity, with pre and post testing to see if there were any changes. These women were compared with a control group of women who didn’t have diabetes.

All of the women in the study had been diagnosed with diabetes for eight years or more and knew about the downsides to diabetes, which is why they were very keen to participate in a program to maintain and improve their health.

Bachelor of Health Science (Honours) student, Rebecca Nolan, conducted tests throughout the exercise sessions, with the women wearing heart monitors to ensure that they exercised at 50 to 60 per cent of their maximum heart rate and were comfortable throughout the sessions.

The participants had an average pressure reading of 3.7 kg/cm² while walking on the treadmill, but their pressure levels dropped significantly to an average of 1.2 kg/cm² when cycling at an equivalent heart rate intensity - less than one-third of the pressure levels experienced on the treadmill.

“This is a significant reduction in pressure through their feet. And while the results revealed no significant changes with respect to the vibration and sensation levels on the soles of their feet, most of the women experienced some improvement in those measures, and no one experienced increased pressure. These are important findings given the association between increased pressure and the development of ulcers,” Nolan said.

“And the benefits didn’t stop there. The women recorded improved fitness levels within four weeks of starting the program, with significant decreases in their heart rates while cycling over the 12 week program.

“Within each exercise session the women also had an average 19.2 per cent drop in blood glucose levels, with readings taken immediately before and after each exercise session,” Nolan said.

“This simple 20 minute exercise resulted in a big change in blood glucose levels. For the participants, these results reinforced the important health benefits of exercise. If people with diabetes know that their blood sugar levels are slightly elevated, some moderate intensity exercise such as this stationary cycling may help to get their levels down,” Dr Raynor said.

In addition to the health benefits, the cycling program had lots of social benefits for the women involved.

“They loved coming to the sessions and enjoyed the conversation and support of Rebecca being with them to supervise their exercises, as well as having other participants to share sessions with and to encourage them to keep going,” Dr Raynor said.

The program filled a gap for 64 year-old Yvonne Donnell, who retired recently. “I’ve looked forward to getting up early and coming in for my cycling and sharing experiences with fellow riders,” Donnell said.

“Before the study my only exercise was walking but now I’m more motivated and my fitness levels have improved. I’ve learnt about managing my diabetes better with exercise bringing my blood sugar levels down. The whole experience has been most enjoyable and I would like to come back again,” she said.

Several women in the program have purchased their own cycles and a few have joined gymnasiums or exercise groups in community settings. Some were just walkers before, some not even that. Now all have made changes and are more active.

Researchers from four disciplines within the School of Health Sciences have been involved in the program - Dr Raynor and Rebecca Nolan (human movement/exercise science); Dr Sara Jones (podiatry); Head of the School, Professor Esther May (occupational therapy), who looked at their whole lifestyle of activities; and Maureen Phillips (medical radiations), who conducted ultrasounds to measure the circulation through the lower limbs.

The research findings will be presented at the 3rd International Cycling Conference Thinking on Two Wheels at the Hilton Adelaide tomorrow (17 January).

The study has been made possible through the University’s Thinking on Two Wheels research program, which provides funds for UniSA researchers from diverse disciplines to pursue leading edge cycling-centric research.

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