Best Exercises for Beating Metabolic Syndrome

The Benefits of Aerobic, Interval, and Resistance Exercise

Exercising for Metabolic Syndrome on Spin Bikes
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Exercise is recommended as a natural way to prevent and treat metabolic syndrome. But exercise means different things to different people. You might wonder whether taking a brisk walk is enough, or if you need to run or lift weights. Researchers are looking at which types and amounts of exercise are best to reduce your risks.

Metabolic Syndrome

If your doctor has said you have metabolic syndrome or you are at risk of developing it, you are not alone. About one-third of all Americans meet the criteria for this condition. Metabolic syndrome raises your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.

The criteria for metabolic syndrome are that you have three or more of the following:

  • Too much fat around your waist: Waistline equal to or greater than 102 centimeters for men, 88 centimeters for women.
  • High triglycerides in your blood: Triglycerides equal to or greater than 150 mg/dL
  • Low levels of the good type of cholesterol in your blood: HDL cholesterol equal to or less than 40 mg/dL
  • High blood pressure: Systolic equal to or greater than 130 mmHg or diastolic equal to or greater than 85 mmHg
  • High blood sugar: Fasting glucose equal to or greater than 100 mg/dL

Exercise, diet, and weight loss can improve many of these measurements and reverse or prevent metabolic syndrome.

Basic Exercise Recommendations for Metabolic Syndrome

The heart-healthy physical activity recommendations from the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute focus on aerobic exercise, which is also called cardio exercise. The amount and type recommended to prevent or treat metabolic syndrome are:

  • Get 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity.
  • Exercise can be broken up into sessions of 10 minutes or more throughout the day.
  • Brisk walking (3 miles per hour or faster) is an example of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, but any activity that raises your heart rate is included.

Moderate-intensity exercise raises your heart rate to the range of 50 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. You are breathing harder than normal but can still speak in full sentences. Exercises other than brisk walking include bicycling at less than 10 miles per hour, water aerobics, doubles tennis, or ballroom dancing.

Vigorous-intensity exercises include running, bicycling at a faster speed, aerobic dancing, singles tennis, and any activity that brings your heart rate up to 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. You will only be able to speak in short phrases.

Many fitness trackers, such as Fitbit, track moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise minutes. On the Fitbit, these are called active minutes. Checking that measurement can help you ensure you are getting enough aerobic exercise each day.

These recommendations don't specifically mention interval training, which involves bursts of higher-intensity activity throughout an aerobic workout to raise your heart rate. Resistance exercise (or muscle-strengthening activity) isn't mentioned at all, even though strength workouts two days per week are recommended for health and fitness in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Researchers have been exploring whether these types of exercise also have benefit in reducing the risks of metabolic syndrome.

Effects of Aerobic Exercise Alone and When Combined With Resistance Exercise

A meta-analysis of 16 randomized controlled trials aimed to find whether aerobic exercise or a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise had measurable effects for patients who had metabolic syndrome. Their data analysis found these results:

  • Aerobic exercise benefits: Aerobic exercise alone significantly improved body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, triglycerides, and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure when comparing the results of those who exercised with patients who remained sedentary. Other benefits of aerobic exercise included lower body weight, fat mass, fasting blood glucose, and LDL cholesterol. People who enjoyed aerobic exercise had improved aerobic fitness as measured by VO2peak. Interestingly, HDL cholesterol levels were unchanged.
  • Combined exercise benefits: Combining aerobic and resistance exercise significantly improved waist circumference, systolic blood pressure, and HDL cholesterol. As with aerobic exercise alone, aerobic fitness was improved as seen by the VO2peak measurement. The other measures were not significantly changed.
  • Effects of the intensity of aerobic exercise: Aerobic fitness improved more for those who exercised at high intensity (such as running) as well as those who enjoyed the combination program of moderate intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) plus resistance training. High-intensity exercise was the winner when it came to lowering systolic blood pressure. There was no difference between exercise intensity groups for other outcomes.
  • Resistance exercise alone: No studies of resistance exercise alone were included, but the authors point to other studies that say it may be useful and suggest more research is needed.

The magnitude of the beneficial effects was significant but small. This leads to the question as to whether they would make a difference in health outcomes. Your waistline may shrink, but exercise alone may not be enough to get you to below the threshold of the metabolic syndrome criteria. Your blood tests might look better, but does it mean you have less risk of heart attack or stroke? The researchers note that exercise is just one strategy in managing metabolic syndrome. Reducing overall sedentary time, improving diet, and getting better sleep are other recommendations to lower risks.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Many popular aerobic interval workouts and programs include bursts of higher intensity exercise, such as repeating sprints of a minute followed by walking, or a slower jogging speed for a few minutes. Whether these types of aerobic workouts are better for metabolic syndrome is still an open question. While there are some studies that show they have more effect than continuous moderate-intensity exercise, these studies have been small and some are not of high quality. It's too early to say that HIIT is better. But if you enjoy HIIT workouts, they should have at least the same effect as other aerobic workouts.

Treadmills, elliptical trainers, and stationary bikes often have hill or speed interval workouts pre-programmed for you to use. If you enjoy walking or running outdoors, there are many ways to add bursts of higher intensity to your workouts. Speed up, tackle a hill, or use stairs to boost your heart rate.

Resistance Exercise and the Risk of Metabolic Syndrome

Looking specifically at the benefits of resistance exercise, a study at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas looked at whether over 7,400 participants in their exercise trials developed metabolic syndrome. They could see that 15 percent of those in their studies developed metabolic syndrome and could look back at their typical amount and type of exercise and whether they met the U.S. physical activity guidelines:

  • Meeting the recommendations for resistance exercise twice per week reduced the risk of metabolic syndrome by 17 percent, independent of aerobic exercise.
  • Meeting the recommendations for both aerobic and resistance exercise reduced the risk of metabolic syndrome by 25 percent.
  • Compared with getting no resistance exercise, doing resistance exercise for less than an hour a week reduced the risk of metabolic syndrome by 29 percent. Spending more than an hour a week at resistance exercise didn't provide any additional risk reduction.

These outcome results suggest that you might lower your risk of metabolic syndrome by getting the recommended amount of resistance exercise, in addition to the recommended amount of aerobic exercise.

Resistance exercise is muscle-strengthening activity. You can lift weights, use muscle-targeting exercise machines, use resistance bands, or do bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, crunches, and squats.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you walk, bike, dance, run, or lift weights, you are likely to be reducing your risk of metabolic syndrome. Do what you enjoy most and try different forms of exercise to spice things up. If you wear an activity monitor, check your exercise minutes to see if you are reaching the recommended amounts each week. If not, try to steadily increase your exercise time. Don't skip the resistance exercise and, above all, find activities that are fun so you will continue to do them.

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