Exercise and Diabetes

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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 have even more significance. Exercise can help to reduce existing complications associated with diabetes and also defer potential problems.

Used as a treatment, exercise can even help many people with Type 2 diabetes to a point where they can live a completely normal life again, without further health complications. Exercise can also help to prevent Type 2 diabetes ever occurring.

There are some precautions to take when exercising with diabetes, however. Read on to 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 because it helps to prevent many diseases to which you are more susceptible, such as coronary artery disease, cerebro-vascular disease, and peripheral artery disease. For some people with Type 1 diabetes, regular exercise may help to stabilise blood glucose concentrations over a long period of time.

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

If you have Type 1 diabetes, it is essential to 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 for those with Type 2 diabetes because it usually involves a lifestyle change. Exercise plays an essential role in managing blood glucose levels for those with Type 2 diabetes, and can even reverse the diabetic condition in some people.

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

How exercise can help you manage diabetes

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Diabetes affects blood glucose concentrations, but it also has wider-ranging effects on the whole body, including increased risks of heart disease, stroke, blindness, foot ulcers, gangrene, kidney damage, and impotence. Exercise can help reduce these risks and generally improve 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 glucose stores, thus reducing blood sugar levels.
  • Increase insulin sensitivity. People with Type 2 diabetes have insulin resistance. This is a condition in which blood sugar levels are raised because the insulin cannot be transported effectively to the cells. It has been shown that muscular contraction has an insulin-like effect, facilitating the transport of glucose into the cells. Exercise improves insulin sensitivity through muscular contraction and is an essential part of treatment for those with Type 2 diabetes.
  • Prevent cardiovascular disease. People with diabetes are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease; exercise can help to lower this risk. Exercise improves the flow of blood through small blood vessels and thus increases your heart’s pumping efficiency, leading to better heart health. Exercise also helps to control or reduce elevated blood pressure, which can cause many cardiovascular problems. Some research suggests that exercise also reduces LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and increases HDL cholesterol (the good kind). Good cholesterol levels help to keep your arteries clean and prevent heart complications.
  • Improve weight control. Studies show that many people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. Studies also show that a 10-15 percent weight loss can dramatically improve management of diabetes, and can even reverse the condition. In particular, exercise might 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 emotional health. It improves the chemical imbalances associated with depression and reduces anxiety levels. And whether it’s yoga, kick-boxing 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 bring to an end the need for medication.

Getting started

Finding the motivation to get started at exercise is a challenge for most of us, but once you get into it you’ll find it’s worth it. Try to make exercise a habit, something you just do every day without even thinking – just like brushing your teeth. And remember, there is no need to run a marathon right away! Get started with small goals that you gradually build upon. If you’re looking for motivation, new ideas, support, or challenges, try the CalorieKing exercise forum.

The state of your general health and any complications you have as a result of diabetes may warrant certain precautions when exercising. For example, if you have loss of sensation in the feet, you should avoid any weight-bearing exercises, such as jogging, that might cause skin ulcerations or small fractures that you might not notice. Lifting heavy weights may pose a health threat for an older adult or someone with longstanding diabetes because it can dramatically increase blood pressure. Ask your doctor to help you work out a suitable program.

Ten tips for exercising with diabetes

Calorie King’s Exercise Physiologist, Alex Armstrong, has the following tips:701 4

  1. Get proper medical advice before embarking on a new exercise-training program.
  2. Monitor blood glucose levels before, during and after exercise, especially in the early stages of exercise training. 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. Exercising when you are sick can make your blood glucose levels fluctuate dramatically and it may take longer to get well.
  4. Keep fluid levels well up before, during, and after exercise, especially when 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 to get to know your own blood glucose response to exercise training.
  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.
Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.

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