Male Elite Athletes Have Less Diabetes Later in Life

Mark L. Fuerst

Young men who have participated in sports at a high level have reduced disturbances in glucose regulation later in life, and the prevalence of type 2 DM is lower.

Young men who have participated in sports at a high level have reduced disturbances in glucose regulation and a lower prevalence of type 2 diabetes mellitus (DM) later in life.

A unique Finnish questionnaire-based study of former male elite athletes and their age- and area-matched controls has been ongoing since 1985. In 2008, living participants from earlier phases of the study were invited to take part in a clinical study.

The prevalence of type 2 DM and impaired glucose tolerance later in life was lower in former elite athletes, endurance athletes in particular, than in controls. What’s more, a higher volume of leisure-time physical activity in later life also was associated with a lower prevalence of type 2 DM.

The study compared nearly 400 former male elite athletes, mean age 73 years, with just more than 200 controls, mean age 72 years. The former athletes were divided into 3 groups based on their active career sport: endurance, mixed, and power sports. Participants who did not have a history of DM (more than 500) underwent an oral glucose tolerance test.

The researchers also determined the current volume of leisure-time physical activity via self-reported questionnaires. This activity was expressed in metabolic equivalent hours (MET-h).

The risk of type 2 DM was significantly lower in the former elite athletes than in the controls. The risk of type 2 DM decreased with increased physical activity. Also, the risk of impaired glucose tolerance was significantly lower in the former elite athletes than in the controls.

“A former career as an elite athlete protected from both type 2 diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance in later life. In addition, the volume of current leisure-time physical activity was inversely associated with the prevalence of type 2 diabetes,” the researchers concluded.

The researchers found that being a former elite athlete reduced the risk of type 2 DM by a statistically significant 28%. However, this reduction varied among the different sports categories.

The risk reduction was a statistically significant 61% for those who had had careers in endurance sports. For mixed sports and power sports, the reductions were 21% and 23%, respectively (neither of these findings was statistically significant).

The risk of type 2 DM decreased with increased leisure-time physical activity volume, by 2% per 1 MET-h per week. Also, the risk of impaired glucose tolerance, a recognized precursor state to full-blown DM, was 42% lower in the former elite athletes. The researchers noted that “with aging, the former athletes maintained their physically active lifestyle better than the controls.”

These results support previous findings in the same cohort reporting that current leisure-time physical activity level is associated with a lower risk of type 2 DM. The results of the present study are consistent with several previous findings regarding the beneficial effects of regular physical activity. Both aerobic and resistance exercise play an important role in the prevention of type 2 DM, the researchers noted.

The article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Diabetologia.