Mind & Body

Diabetes Skyrockets Amid a Pandemic of Sitting

We need to get moving after COVID-19 left us sedentary and contributed to a 16 percent rise in diabetes over 2 years
TIMEDecember 22, 2021

New figures show that global diabetes prevalence has increased by 16 percent in the past two years, with 537 million adults (aged 20–79) now estimated to be living with the chronic condition.

Over this same time period, COVID-19 has stopped us from doing some of the things that help prevent and manage diabetes. One of the ways it has done so is by causing an increase in sedentary behavior (sitting down for long periods of time), which was already at dangerous levels pre-COVID-19. Some estimates indicate that the pandemic added an average of three hours to our sitting time each day.

Now that the lockdowns have eased in many places, it’s vital that we get moving again—and in the right way—to change this picture.

Reducing sitting time is a good starting place to help people with diabetes, pre-diabetes, and other chronic conditions to reach healthier levels of physical activity.

A Growing Global Problem

Data from the International Diabetes Federation’s 10th Diabetes Atlas, officially launched recently, shows about 10 percent of the world’s population aged 20–79 now live with diabetes, and diabetes prevalence is predicted to steadily increase to roughly 784 million adults by 2045.

Most of these people live with Type 2 diabetes, a chronic condition that affects the way the body processes blood sugar (glucose). In Type 2 diabetes, repeated fluctuations in blood glucose levels eventually mean the body doesn’t respond properly with insulin—the hormone produced that allows glucose to go from blood to cells.

This can progress to common diabetes complications such as blindness, nerve damage, heart disease, and kidney disease. Recent reports point to an even wider range of diabetes effects such as an increased risk of liver disease, dementia, depression, and some cancers.

Our research highlights regular movement as a key way to help manage diabetes and help prevent complications. Getting moving effectively improves glucose controlblood pressurevascular health, and memory.

Moving Out of Lockdown

As we transition to COVID-19-normal, we must leave lockdown levels of physical inactivity and sedentary behavior behind.

Reducing sitting time is a good “first step,” because it appears more achievable for many and less daunting than a new exercise regime, especially for people who have been highly inactive or who live with a chronic health condition.

Simple lifestyle strategies to reduce sitting time and replace it with either standing or, even better, light physical activity improve metabolism, and for people with Type 2 diabetes, it can prevent and help “sponge up” rising blood glucose levels if insulin isn’t being produced properly.

Breaking up sitting every hour with just two or three minutes of walking can make a difference to glucose control compared with prolonged and uninterrupted sitting. And some evidence shows that greater time spent doing light activities on a daily basis, such as household chores, playing with pets, or light garden work, can provide greater blood sugar control over 24 hours than structured workouts.

We are currently testing how these small changes influence diabetes in a clinical trial. Our goal is to help desk workers with diabetes reduce and break up their sitting time.

Lorys’s Story

One of our trial participants, Lorys, 64, was gutted when he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 11 years ago.

Like many people, he was leading a sedentary lifestyle. A demanding job involving long hours at the computer meant that he was sitting for most of the day, stressed and anxious about his health. Diabetes medication wasn’t improving his blood glucose levels as much as he would have liked. Then the pandemic arrived and working from home exacerbated the problem, because he was doing fewer everyday activities, such as walking to and around the office.

As part of the trial, Lorys has started using a sit-stand workstation and an activity tracker to encourage regular short walks throughout the day. He’s focused on making gradual lifestyle changes, small steps that feel achievable and have already made a big difference.

Since the start of 2021, Lorys’s HbA1c level—a key diabetes health marker—has almost halved. He has lost weight and said his mental outlook is more positive. He also said he no longer thinks of diabetes as a “death sentence.”

5 Ways to Quit the Sit

Whether we have Type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, or just want to get back to a healthier lifestyle post-lockdowns, most of us can benefit from some simple changes:

  • Try using a height-adjustable (sit-to-stand) desk. Start standing for a few minutes each day and gradually scale up to standing or walking for 30 minutes of every hour.
  • Use phone meetings or phone calls as a prompt to stand.
  • Try walking during work meetings or when catching up with friends.
  • After finishing a work task or an episode of your favorite TV show, take a short walk around the block.
  • Set a calendar reminder or use a wearable device to prompt you to stand up and move regularly throughout the day.

It’s been a tough couple of years, especially for people living which chronic health conditions. But it’s not too late to make changes to prevent and manage diabetes and its complications.

 is a Ph.D. candidate at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Australia, and  is a professor and laboratory head of physical activity at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. This article was first published on The Conversation