Better Diabetes Care in a Single Step
The big secret to living a long and healthy life with diabetes is not really a big secret.
There are certain phrases that seem to be played on a loop in every physician's office. "Check your blood sugar levels, administer medication appropriately, eat nutrient-dense foods and exercise," is common advice, but putting it into action can be a challenge. After all, when you're busy with work, school, family, social activities and other obligations, something has to be left along the way. Unfortunately, exercise is often the first thing to be dropped.
Why is exercise important for people with diabetes?
Regular physical activity has been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as a lower risk of developing diabetes in people with glucose intolerance.1 Yet about 85% of Canadians aren't meeting recommended levels of physical activity each week.2
Being active on a regular basis has been shown to:2
Improve well-being and mood
Strengthen your heart
Increase blood flow to your brain
Help control weight
Improve the immune system
Boost sleep and energy levels
As if that's not enough of a reason to start a diabetes exercise plan, it has also been shown to:3
Lower A1C values
Lower insulin resistance
Improve circulation to the legs and feet
Most people have heard these benefits before, but may not realize that these benefits last long after the actual activity is over. A study published in the World Journal of Diabetes found that people who engage in regular, moderate physical activity burn more carbohydrates for hours after the exercise is over than those who don't exercise at all.4 So what keeps us from getting moving? Often, we simply don't know where to start.
3 exercises for diabetes that anyone can do
You don't need fancy equipment or a gym membership to start a diabetes exercise plan. In fact, the best plans can be incorporated into your lifestyle right now.
Going for a brisk (5.5 km/h) or a very brisk (6.5-7 km/h) walk has been shown to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes in people who have glucose intolerance, as well as reduce the risk of heart attack.5 Just put on a sturdy pair of shoes and choose your destination. Start slowly and gradually work up to 30-minute walks, 5 days a week for worthwhile health benefits. To stay on track, start a challenge group with coworkers or download an app that records your distance, time and calories burned.
If you think of yoga as a relaxation technique rather than "real exercise," think again. While yoga has been linked to lower stress levels in people with diabetes, it is also a great, low-impact workout that offers the benefits of strength training without weights.6
Many public libraries, hospitals, senior citizen centers and yoga studios offer classes specially designed for beginners, people over 55 and anyone with health challenges.
There are also fantastic yoga classes available online that you can do in the comfort of your own home. Search the phrase "beginner's yoga" to find free video classes you can do in 20 minutes or less.
Tennis, Badminton or Pickleball
Three similar-yet-distinct sports with varying activity levels, tennis, pickleball and badminton are fun ways to get moving without feeling like you are exercising. You can gain upper body coordination, strength and cardiovascular benefits while you get out and socialize. Set up a standing doubles event with friends or check your community listings for a recreational league to add an element of competition.
Swimming is a great idea for people with diabetes (or anyone, really). Water provides mild resistance to help increase your strength, and it is less stressful for your feet than walking or jogging. Stop by your local pool or aquatic centre and ask for a tour. And when you swim, be sure to wear water shoes to keep your feet from scraping the bottom of the pool, and to provide additional traction in the water and on deck.
Diabetes and Exercise Precautions
One of the keys to exercising safely with diabetes is learning how your body reacts to different types of activity. Follow these general guidelines:3,4
Check your blood sugar before, during and after physical activity, so you can really see how your body reacts to exercise. You may find you have an initial spike in blood sugar levels, then a drop as your body processes any available carbohydrate. If your activity is especially rigorous (skiing, snowboarding, running, etc.) you may experience low blood sugar hours later, so keep checking your levels.
If you find that your blood sugar drops with activity, in the future you can plan to eat a snack an hour before you start. Having a little food in your system serves two purposes. First, it gives you the energy you need to perform the exercise. More important, it helps lower the risk of low blood sugar during your workout.
Keep checking and be sure to eat one to two hours after you are finished exercising to help lower the risk of a low.
Be prepared—keep juice, glucose tablets or a snack available to treat an unexpected low.
Despite understanding the benefits, many people don't realize how easy can be to incorporate more activity into a daily routine. The sooner you start a regular diabetes exercise plan, the sooner you can reap the rewards.
1Pan XR, Li GW, Hu YH, et al. Effects of diet and exercise in preventing NIDDM in people with impaired glucose tolerance: the Da Qing IGT and diabetes study. Diabetes Care. 1997;20(4): 537-44. Available at: http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/20/4/537. Accessed February 28, 2019.
2Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Physical activity, heart disease and stroke. Available at: https://www.heartandstroke.ca/-/media/pdf-files/canada/2017-position-sta.... Accessed February 28, 2019.
3Harvard Health Publishing. Exercise is good for diabetes. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/exercise-is-good-for-diabetes. Accessed February 28, 2019.
4Asano RY, Sales MM, Browne RAV, et al. Acute effects of physical exercise in type 2 diabetes: a review. World J Diabetes. 2014;5(5): 659-665. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4138589/. Accessed February 28, 2019.
5Hamasaki H. Daily physical activity and type 2 diabetes: a review. World J Diabetes. 2016;7(12): 243-251. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4914832/. Accessed February 28, 2019.
6Craike MJ, Mosely K, Browne JL, Pouwer F, Speight J. Associations between physical activity and depressive symptoms by weight status among adults with type 2 diabetes: results from Diabetes MILES-Australia. J Phys Act Health. 2017;14(3): 195-202. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27918698. Accessed February 28, 2019.