Scientific research has long shown that exercise can help prevent chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, but an exact figure on exactly how much it helps has been elusive. Now, a team of researchers from the UK and Sweden claim to have come up with the best estimate to date.

Reviewing 23 population studies that collectively looked at over a million adult participants without diabetes, the team estimated that people who engaged in moderate exercise (defined as 150 minutes of physical activity a week) were 26 percent less likely to develop the condition than those entirely sedentary. This reduction was independent of other factors like diet, age, and body mass index. Their findings were published in Diabetologia.

“Our results suggest a major potential for physical activity to slow down or reverse the global increase in type 2 diabetes and should prove useful for health impact modelling, which frequently forms part of the evidence base for policy decisions,“ said lead author Dr. Andrea Smith, an epidemiologist at the University College London, in a statement.

While doubling the amount of exercise didn’t perfectly match a doubling in reduced risk, more exercise did better protect people against diabetes — 300 minutes of moderate exercise weekly, or five hours a week, was associated with a 36 percent lower risk. So although the largest gains were seen in following the bare minimum of exercise recommended by organizations like the American Diabetes Association, the researchers believe that there needs to be a stronger push to encourage even higher levels of exercise, difficult as it might be.

“Enabling cultures and built environments to increase physical activity at the population-wide level may prevent substantial personal suffering and economic burden,” they said. “Given the current obesity and diabetes epidemic, the utility of such a strategy may reach beyond any present-day approaches to improve population health.”

It’s estimated that some 28 million Americans are living with type 2 diabetes as of 2012, according to the American Diabetes Association, and together with type 1 diabetes, it’s considered the 7th leading cause of death annually.

A study also published in Diabetologia this month found that the timing of when we get our exercise may also influence the disease’s course — diabetes patients who exercised immediately after their meals had better blood sugar control than those who exercised at any other time of the day.

Source: Smith A, Crippa A, Woodcock J, et al. Physical activity and incident type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and dose–response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Diabetologia. 2016.