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Exercise and Syndrome X

Whilst one major reason to exercise is to help lose weight, regular exercise has also been shown to help tackle the co-morbidities (illnesses) that often accompany obesity. This condition is sometimes referred to as Syndrome X – or metabolic syndrome.

Syndrome X is a cluster of disorders including obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high insulin levels. In combination, these disorders dramatically boost your chances of developing potentially life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease or stroke.. And if you are obese and unfit –  your likelihood of suffering from Syndrome X is high.

Medical scientists have researched this group of risk factors for years, and have called it many names – Metabolic Syndrome, Syndrome X, the ‘Deadly Quartet’ and ‘Insulin Resistance Syndrome’. Recent studies support what many doctors have suspected all along — that this syndrome is common and it’s becoming even more prevalent. In the US, as many as one in four adults have Syndrome X, an increase of over 60% over the last decade. Worryingly, the statistics for the UK show similar results.

However, the good news is that leading a healthy lifestyle and keeping in good shape will help prevent Syndrome X – and, for those who suffer from the condition, lifestyle changes may help prevent before the development of serious diseases that will likely follow if nothing is done about it.


Signs and symptoms

Having Syndrome X means you have several disorders of your metabolism at the same time, including:

  • Abdominal obesity, measured as a waist circumference of greater than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High fasting blood sugar (glucose) level
  • Abnormal cholesterol and blood fat (lipid) levels — high levels of triglycerides (blood fats) and/or high levels of low density lipoproteins (LDLs – “bad cholesterol”) and/or low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL – “good” cholesterol)
  • Resistance to insulin, a hormone that helps to regulate the amount of sugar in your body

Having one component of Syndrome X means you’re more likely to have other components of the syndrome. And the more components you have, the greater are the risks to your health.

One US study showed that women with three factors of Syndrome X are nearly twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke and more than three times more likely to develop heart disease than those with none. The same study showed that those with four or five factors of the syndrome have nearly four times the risk of heart attack or stroke and more than 24 times the risk of diabetes.


Medical scientists now believe that the major, underlying cause of Syndrome X is insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps regulate the amount of sugar in your body. Normally, your digestive system breaks down some of the food you eat into sugar (glucose). Then your body uses insulin to transport the glucose into your cells (e.g. muscles), where it’s converted to energy to fuel your various body processes (e.g. physical activity).

If your body becomes resistant to the action of insulin, glucose has more difficulty entering the cells. Your body reacts by churning out more and more insulin in an effort to help glucose enter your cells. This extra insulin helps maintain normal glucose levels in your blood for a while, but eventually your pancreas is unable to overcome insulin resistance. As a result, glucose accumulates in your body, ultimately leading to type-2 diabetes. Type-2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes. It formerly was called non-insulin dependent diabetes (NIDD) or adult-onset diabetes. However, since this type of diabetes is now also found in children, this latter term is no longer used.

Syndrome X occurs before this point. Glucose levels in your body are abnormally high — not high enough to be classified as diabetic, but high enough so that the excess insulin in your system puts you at risk for other health consequences. The levels of cholesterol and triglycerides — another blood fat — in your bloodstream may increase, causing damage to your coronary arteries. And excessively high insulin levels may interfere with your kidneys’ ability to process salt, which can raise your blood pressure.

The cause of insulin resistance isn’t well understood, but it probably involves a variety of genetic and environmental factors. Doctors believe that some people are genetically predisposed to insulin resistance, and the tendency may be partly inherited. But being overweight and physically inactive are major contributors.

Treatment aims

The primary goal of treatment for Syndrome X is to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes, heart attack and stroke. Usually, this can be accomplished with an aggressive regimen of self-care strategies focusing on diet and exercise.

A healthy diet and regular exercise have vitally important roles to play ensuring that your body doesn’t become prone to Syndrome X.


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