Regular exercise and a calcium-rich diet could be two ways to help lower the risk of metabolic syndrome, according to a new study.

Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of risk factors for diabetes and heart disease -- including abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and high triglycerides (another type of blood fat). The syndrome is typically diagnosed when a person has three or more of these conditions.

In the new study, of more than 5,000 Illinois adults, researchers found that metabolic syndrome was less common among those who got the recommended amounts of exercise and dietary calcium.

Overall, the study found, people who failed to get adequate exercise -- at least 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as walking, on most days of the week -- were 85 percent more likely to have metabolic syndrome than their active counterparts.

Similarly, men and women who said they did not regularly eat calcium-rich foods had a 61 percent higher risk of the syndrome than those who frequently consumed calcium-packed foods.

"As with many health conditions, when the good behaviors are absent, the condition is more prevalent," lead researcher Adam Reppert, a dietitian at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago, said in a written statement.

He and his colleagues report the findings in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Beyond lifestyle factors, the researchers also found that African Americans and lower-income study participants had higher risks of metabolic syndrome.

About one-quarter of black adults had the condition, versus 16 percent of whites and 17 percent of Hispanics. When it came to income, more than one-third of people who earned less than $15,000 per year had metabolic syndrome, compared with only 10 percent of those earning more than $50,000.

The implication, the researchers say, is that it will be particularly important to encourage lower-income African Americans to take up exercise and healthier eating.

Lifestyle is also vitally important for anyone who already has metabolic syndrome, Reppert pointed out, as a healthy diet and exercise are ways to "intervene to prevent heart disease or diabetes."

SOURCE: American Journal of Health Promotion, November/December 2008.