Exercise and Diabetes

Whether or not you have diabetes, regular exercise is essential for good health and well being. But for people with diabetes, the benefits of exercise may be even more significant. Exercise can help reduce existing complications associated with diabetes, and also prevent potential problems.

Used as a treatment for diabetes, exercise can even help many people with Type 2 diabetes to live a completely normal life again, without further health complications. Exercise can also help to prevent Type 2 diabetes ever occurring in the first place!

However, there are some precautions to take when exercising with diabetes. Find out more about exercise for people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

Exercise for those with Type 1 diabetes

Exercise is especially important if you have Type 1 diabetes, as it helps prevent many diseases to which you are more susceptible, such as coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease and peripheral artery disease. For some people with Type 1 diabetes, regular exercise may help stabilise blood glucose concentrations over a long period of time.

When exercising with Type 1 diabetes, it’s important to be aware you may be prone to hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose concentration) both during and immediately after exercise. This is because your liver fails to release glucose at a rate that can support the demands for glucose made by your muscles during exercise.

If you have Type 1 diabetes, it’s essential you consult a health care professional and monitor your blood glucose levels when embarking on an exercise program. Medication and diet must be altered according to your individual blood glucose response to exercise.

Exercise for those with Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is primarily a lifestyle-induced disease. Exercise is especially beneficial if you have Type 2 diabetes, as it usually involves a lifestyle change. Exercise plays an essential role in managing your blood glucose levels, and can even reverse Type 2 diabetes in some people.

Generally, aerobic exercise is used to treat Type 2 diabetes. It not only helps treat the symptoms, but also prevents other associated health risks. Strength training is also a valuable addition to an exercise program for those with Type 2 diabetes. By increasing your muscle mass through strength training, your body creates a larger “sponge” with which to absorb excess blood glucose.

How exercise can help you manage diabetes

Diabetes affects blood glucose concentrations, but it also has wider-ranging effects on your whole body. Diabetes can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness, foot ulcers, gangrene, kidney damage, and impotence.

However exercise can help reduce these risks and generally improve your overall health. If you have diabetes, exercise can help you in particular to:

  • Improve blood sugar control. People with Type 2 diabetes generally need to lower their blood glucose levels. Glucose is used by the muscles of your body as they contract and relax during exercise. In order to meet this need for energy, your body taps into your glucose stores, thus reducing blood sugar levels and improving your diabetic condition.
  • Increase insulin sensitivity. People with Type 2 diabetes have insulin resistance. This is a condition in which blood sugar levels are chronically raised, because insulin can’t be transported effectively to your cells. Muscular contraction has been shown to have an insulin-like effect, facilitating the transport of glucose into your cells. Exercise improves insulin sensitivity through muscular contraction, making it an essential part of treatment for Type 2 diabetes.
  • Prevent cardiovascular disease. People with diabetes are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease; however exercise can help lower this risk. Exercise improves the flow of blood through small blood vessels, therefore increasing your heart’s pumping efficiency, leading to better heart health. Exercise also helps control or reduce elevated blood pressure, which can cause many cardiovascular problems. Research suggests exercise also reduces LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and increases HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol). Good cholesterol levels help keep your arteries clean and prevent heart complications.
  • Improve weight control. Studies show many people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, and a 10-15% decrease in weight can dramatically improve the management of diabetes, potentially even reversing the condition. In particular, exercise can also reduce intra-abdominal fat; this is the fat deep in your belly which is linked to Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance.
  • Improve mental and emotional health. Exercise can be particularly helpful for your emotional health. It improves the chemical imbalances associated with depression and reduces anxiety levels. Whether it’s yoga, kickboxing or swimming, exercise is one of the best forms of stress relief available.
  • Reduce the need for medication. Some people with diabetes are required to use medication, yet many cases of diabetes can be treated with diet and exercise alone. By improving overall diabetic health, exercise can reduce, or even eliminate, your need for medication.

Getting started

Finding the motivation to begin exercising can be a challenge, but once you get into it you’ll find it’s worth it. Try to make exercise a habit, something you do every day without even thinking – just like brushing your teeth.

And remember, there’s no need to run a marathon right away! Get started with small goals which you can gradually build upon. If you’re looking for motivation, new ideas, support, or challenges, find an accountability buddy or training partner to encourage you.

The state of your general health and any complications you experience as a result of diabetes may warrant certain precautions when exercising. For example, if you lose sensation in your feet, avoid any weight-bearing exercises such as jogging, which can cause skin ulcerations or small fractures you might not notice. Lifting heavy weights can also pose a health risk for older adults or people with longstanding diabetes, as it can dramatically increase your blood pressure. Ask your doctor to help you design a suitable program.

Ten tips for exercising with diabetes

Exercise Physiologist, Alex Armstrong, has the following tips:

  1. Seek proper medical advice before embarking on a new exercise program.
  2. Monitor your blood glucose levels before, during and after exercise, especially in the early stages of exercising. Check twice prior to exercising; 30 minutes before and immediately before. If your blood glucose level is 300mg/dL or higher do not exercise.
  3. Don’t exercise when you’re sick. This can make your blood glucose levels fluctuate dramatically, and may increase the time it takes for you to get well.
  4. Keep your fluid levels well up before, during, and after exercise, especially when it’s hot. Dehydration can affect blood glucose levels and heart function.
  5. Have a carbohydrate-based snack or drink handy in case your blood glucose levels drop.
  6. Avoid injecting insulin into a muscle that is about to be used for exercise.
  7. Wear correct footwear. Peripheral vascular disease is relatively common in people with diabetes and often affects the feet.
  8. Exercise at the same time each day. Exercising at a similar time, intensity, and duration each day helps you get to know your own blood glucose response to exercise.
  9. In case of emergency, wear an identification bracelet while exercising.
  10. Be aware of signs of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) during and after exercise. Signs include feeling shaky, having an unusually rapid heartbeat or experiencing vision changes.

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