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Lifestyle changes alone reverse type 2 diabetes in BYU study participants

Those who have or are at-risk of developing type 2 diabetes may be able to reverse the illness by improving their diet and engaging in regular exercise, according to a study by a Brigham Young University exercise scientist.

“We know an awful lot about diabetes prevention, but we do very little about it,” said Steve Aldana, a professor of health and human performance. “Seven to nine percent of Americans have type 2 diabetes, and half don’t even know it yet. It’s a disease that’s going to kill many Americans way before their time.”

Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 94 percent of all diabetes cases, develops later in a person’s life, usually as a result of a poor diet and lack of activity. The affliction can cause blindness, loss of limbs and ultimately death.

Aldana’s study, published in the November 2 issue of the journal of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses, details work implementing a work-sponsored wellness program for medical device company BD Medical. Joining Aldana on the study are JaNae Arbuckle of BYU; Marilyn Barlow, Rebecca Smith and LaDonne Loveday of BD Medical; Frank G. Yanowitz and Ted Adams of Intermountain Health Care and Michael J. LaMonte of the Cooper Research Institued in Dallas.

The team of researchers screened employees of the company to determine who was at-risk for or had diabetes. Those who tested positive were asked to volunteer to participate in the year-long health program, which focused on reducing the amount of food people ate, improving the quality of that food and increasing physical activity.

“Participants ate more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, less refined carbohydrates and foods closer to their natural form,” Aldana said. They were also expected to exercise any way they chose for 30 minutes each day.

By measuring blood insulin levels and running glucose tolerance tests, Aldana was able to observe how long sugars stayed in a person’s system. Participants were screened at the beginning of the study, six months later and one year after the program started.

Aldana observed dramatic improvements at both the six month and one year marks. In the end, more than half the participants were no longer diabetic or at risk. Cardiovascular risk indicators like cholesterol and blood pressure decreased as well.

“Ideally, it’s best to prevent diabetes from ever happening in the first place, but in many cases where it appeared to be too late we were able to stop it or reverse it,” Aldana said.

The professor said he feels the results of the study, although impressive, don’t show the full influence lifestyle change can have on chronic illnesses like diabetes. “I wasn’t at all surprised by the results,” Aldana said. “I was actually a little disappointed that more people didn’t improve. The data we gathered confirm again how important it is for people to have encouragement to live healthy.”

Ron Z. Goetzel, director of Cornell University’s Institute for Policy Research, said work-place health programs can yield impressive results if done correctly.

“The programs that are most effective are the ones that achieve high participation in preliminary screenings and have senior management support and buy-in,” Goetzel said. “That was demonstrated in Dr. Aldana’s study by the company giving employees time to participate.”

Aldana also wasn’t surprised the company wanted help establishing a wellness program. A diabetic employee can cost a company $100,000 in health care costs. Annually, the U.S. spends $132 billion treating diabetes.

“Work is where people spend most of their day,” Aldana said. “So these types of wellness programs have the potential to dramatically change health care in the United States if they are more widely adopted.”

David Steurer, membership director for the Wellness Councils of America, said that for the normal person, adhering to a healthy lifestyle can be difficult.

“We all know what we’re supposed to do but how many of us actually do it?” said Steurer. “Work is an excellent place for people to get the support they need to get healthy.”

Aldana, the author of “The Culprit and The Cure,” is a strong advocate for lifestyle change as a way to treat illnesses in general.

“This is about more than just diabetes,” Aldana said. “It is about preventing, arresting and reversing many of the chronic diseases that Americans have. Lifestyle change is better than even the best medications.”

Aldana said there are four things an organization can do to promote lifestyle changes: educate, motivate, provide tools and change environment.

• Educate: The employees at BD Medical attended an educational meeting every week for 16 weeks to learn about diabetes.

• Motivate with incentives like prizes for exercising 30 minutes each day for a week.

• Provide skills/tools to encourage changes, like strategies on how to substitute healthy foods for unhealthy foods.

• Change the environment by putting healthier food in the office cafeteria or letting families visit to take a walk at lunch.

Writer: Anthony Strike

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