The diet and exercise combo that works for heart health

Whether it's counting carbs, walking after meals or eating cinnamon to lower your blood sugar level, doing the diabetes dance can involve a variety of challenging lifestyle changes.

For heart health, however, a new study reveals that a combination of the Mediterranean diet and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can offer dramatic results for people with abdominal obesity.

Encouraging improvements

The research, conducted by the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, showed that the diet-exercise combo led to improvements in body fat, cholesterol, blood pressure, exercise capacity, muscle endurance, weight loss, resting heart rate and blood sugar.

"Each of these lifestyle interventions alone is known to have an impact, but no one has studied them together in a longer term," said Dr. Mathieu Gayda, study author and exercise physiologist at the Montreal Heart Institute.

The study participants all had abdominal obesity, which refers to excess fat that is carried around the stomach and is linked to a higher risk of diabetes. Participating in high-intensity interval training two to three times a week, the subjects also received counseling on how to adopt a Mediterranean diet, which includes a high volume of vegetables, fish, grains and olive oil.

Previous studies have linked HIIT to better health outcomes in diabetes, as well as more sustainable changes in exercise behavior. The current study was no exception. Results showed that participants had an 8-centimeter average reduction in waist circumference, a 6 millimeter-reduction in systolic blood pressure, and a 15 percent improvement in aerobic fitness over the first nine months of the study.

Long-term results

What's most encouraging about the study, the authors said, is that the health benefits of the HIIT-Mediterranean diet combination seem to last over time.

"What is striking is not only the positive early results, which can be common when motivation is high, but the fact that participants kept improving into a second year," said Dr. Nigam, a preventive cardiologist at the Montreal Heart Institute.

Cardiovascular disease is the currently the leading cause of death among Canadians with diabetes, Dr. Gayada noted, and the key to a heart-healthy life fundamentally lies in diet and exercise.

"Improvements and control in blood sugar levels using lifestyle interventions (exercise and diet) can substantially reduce [patients'] overall risk of heart disease and stroke and microvascular complications such as retina and kidney disease," the study concluded.

Source: Heart and Stroke Foundation

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