How to Exercise If You Have Diabetes
by Allison Karp, Education Coordinator
Regular exercise for people with diabetes can help reduce the symptoms and complications of Type 2 Diabetes and improve general quality of life, according to the most up-to-date research on the subject. Physical activity is not only good for people with diabetes, but it can dramatically reduce the risk of developing the disease as well.
Researchers found that aerobic and strength training can improve insulin action and as a result reduce the disease’s symptoms and complications. “Exercise plays a major role in the prevention and control of insulin resistance, prediabetes, gestational diabetes mellitus, Type 2 Diabetes, and diabetes-related health complications,” according to the most comprehensive review of related studies. “The inclusion of an exercise program or other means of increasing overall physical activity is critical for optimal health in individuals with Type 2 Diabetes.”
This scientific consensus adds to the wide body of knowledge on the physical benefits of exercise – reduced rates of heart disease and diabetes, improvement in blood pressure levels and protections against osteoporosis, to mention a few. Exercise also can improve balance and strength to make walking and climbing easier and to help prevent falls. It’s a great outlet for your frustration and anxiety and can make you feel better about yourself and how you look.
Before you begin an exercise program more intense than brisk walking, please consult your doctor or other trusted healthcare advisor. If you have any physical limitations, vision problems or nerve complications, your doctor may be able to advise adjustments to an exercise program.
It helps to have some type of supervision – either a personal trainer or an experienced friend – when engaging in a new exercise program. Most gyms and health clubs offer free introductory classes with a personal trainer, so take advantage of this! They may also give discounted training sessions to new members or free passes around your birthday.
What Is the Best Exercise Program for a Person With Diabetes?
The most effective exercises to lower blood glucose levels appear to be a combination of aerobic and resistance training. The increase in muscle mass from strength and resistance training contributes to the uptake of blood glucose while the aerobic activity benefits insulin action. Furthermore, the burning of fat from exercise contributes to better insulin action. Milder forms of exercise such as tai chi and yoga have shown short term benefits in lowering blood glucose levels.
If you want an exercise program to work for you, it should be incorporated into your daily routine. The goal isn’t to become a buff gym bunny overnight. Start off gradually and build your tolerance for exercise. You will be surprised how quickly you start to feel fit. An effective exercise program only requires you to spend an hour for five days each week – three days of aerobics and two days of weight training. If you haven’t exerted yourself in a long time, try only one or two days of exercise each week until you are capable of more regular activity.
Aerobic activity is any form of rhythmic movement that uses the large muscle groups of the body. Beneficial aerobic exercise (including walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, jumping rope, or stair climbing) should cause a sustained increases in your heart rate.
Most people with diabetes should engage in at least 150 minutes per week (that’s less than an hour a day for three days a week) of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise to have the greatest impact on their health. For most people with diabetes, brisk walking (about 4 miles per hour) is a moderate-intensity exercise. You might get some cardiovascular and blood glucose benefits from lower exercise intensity, and greater benefits from higher intensity.
You can alternate different aerobic activities to reduce potential boredom and prevent repetitive injuries. Remember to discuss your proposed exercise plan with your doctor and a fitness instructor. They can give you advice on how to ease into a program so that you don’t overexert yourself or cause injury.
Strength and Resistance Training
People with diabetes should take two nonconsecutive days each week to exercise with weights, in addition to three days each week of aerobic exercise. When training with weights or resistance exercise equipment at a gym, your body can be divided into three basic groups: upper body, lower body and core. Make sure that you are getting the most benefits (and least injuries) from weight training by speaking with a professional fitness instructor when you begin your program, and periodically thereafter.
Weight training should be of moderate intensity, or about 50% of a one-repetition maximum. Let’s say the heaviest weight you can comfortably lift is 100 pounds – you should train with a weight of 50 pounds. More vigorous exercise is at 75-80% of 1-repetition maximum (75-80 pounds in the above example). Over time your muscles will get stronger and you should increase the weights you use.
Each training session should include a total of five to ten exercises for all of your body parts in the major muscle groups. Each exercise involves the completion of ten to fifteen repetitions at 50% of your maximum. It’s important to reinforce that you should go easy for at least a few weeks until your body gets used to the new strains on it. A little muscle soreness is normal after lifting weights – joint pain is not.
Flexibility, Stretching and Low-Impact Exercises
Flexibility training such as yoga, tai chi, pilates or stretching can be included as part of a program of physical activity, although it should not substitute for aerobic and strength training. Flexibility training can help older adults to maintain or improve balance, particularly for those with a higher risk of falling.
Flexibility exercise combined with resistance training can increase your range of motion and allow you to more easily engage in activities that require greater range of motion around joints. These are good activities to incorporate into your exercise routine, perhaps before or after you go for a walk or head to the gym.
At the very least, you ought to increase your total daily, unstructured physical activity to gain additional health benefits. Just getting up and moving around (take the stairs instead of the elevator) instead of engaging in passive activities can give your body the boost it needs to burn calories.
- “Weekly Exercise Planner” (download the free file)
- “Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, December 2010”
- “Tai Chi for Health and Fitness”
- “Cross-Training: Complete Fitness for Seniors”
- “Maintaining Proper Sleep Hygiene”
- “8 Workout Mistakes You Probably Make”
- More articles in The Prism Diabetes Library
“Fitness Walking” by Therese Iknoian (Fitness Spectrum Series, Human Kinetics Publishers, 1995): This informative and inspirational book has sections on walking the right way, warming up and cooling down, sample walking programs and cross-training. This book is heavily illustrated, showing correct postures, exercises and heart rate charts. If you’re even a bit serious about walking for fitness, this book will quickly become your primary reading.
“Easy Exercises to Relieve Stress” by H. Esherf, DO (Adams Media Corporation, 1999): Are you reluctant to begin an exercise program – even a simple one – because you don’t know how to get started? This book is carefully illustrated with photographs demonstrating some very basic stretches and exercises that can help even the busiest and stressed-out person say, “Yes, I can do this!” The book gives individual exercises for specific stress points, breathing techniques and nutrition tips. It’s a great primer for the beginning exerciser or the more advanced enthusiast.
“The Anatomy of Stretching” by Brad Walker (Lotus Publishing, 2007): When I first started lifting weights in my early 20’s I was advised to study “Gray’s Anatomy” (the text book, not the TV show) to visualize the way that muscles and bones are placed on the body. This book on stretching serves as a colorful guide for the person just getting started with an exercise program. All humans basically look the same – some of us are just covered with more flab. By visualizing what’s under all of that bulk we can better tone and train the underlying muscles.