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The Connection Between Diabetes And Exercise

June 26, 2020

Having diabetes, whether it's Type 1 or Type 2, is no reason to stop moving. In fact, exercise can help all diabetics better manage their blood sugar. It's important, though, to understand the different ways your body might react during and after exercise. Talking with your doctor before you start a new exercise plan will help ensure you get the most from every workout.

Why exercise is helpful

Among many other benefits, exercise helps people with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes control blood sugar levels. In most cases, cells need insulin to turn sugar (also called glucose) into fuel. However, your muscles don't need insulin to use glucose when you're exercising. So, it doesn't matter whether you're insulin resistant or don't produce enough insulin, your muscles can still use that glucose.

Exercise also can help people with diabetes reduce other long-term health risks, especially heart disease. Over time, exercise can help you:

  • Improve cholesterol. Exercise helps reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol and boosts HDL ("good") cholesterol. This helps reduce the risk of blocked arteries – a condition people with diabetes are susceptible to.
  • Lower blood pressure. Staying active helps keep blood pressure within safe levels. High blood pressure contributes to both heart disease and kidney disease.
  • Reduce body fat. With regular exercise, you'll gain lean muscle and burn off body fat. Higher levels of body fat add to heart disease risks.

What kind of exercise works?

Any kind of regular exercise will help you manage your blood sugar better. This includes both aerobic exercises, like walking and running, as well as resistance training with weights or bands. The important thing is to choose activity you enjoy, so you'll be more likely to stick with it. Doctors also suggest you:

  • Aim for 30 aerobic minutes a day. This is a good target, even if you can't hit it every day. You can break it up into 10-minute chunks, especially if you're just starting out.
  • Buddy up. Finding a friend for a daily walk can help you stay motivated. Follow social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by keeping at least six feet (about two arms' length) apart from others.
  • Work in some weights. Strength training helps you build more muscle. This is important, because muscle uses more glucose than other body tissue. So, more muscle can mean better blood sugar management. Lifting weights or using resistance bands for 20-30 minutes, two to three times a week is a good goal to work toward.

Tips for a healthy workout

If regular exercise is new to you – or if you're newly diagnosed with diabetes – talk with your doctor first. It's good to know if you have other health issues to consider before starting your plan. Additionally, there are some special steps to take to protect against blood sugar problems while you're exercising:

  • Timing. Try to plan your workouts for one to three hours after eating. That's when your blood sugar will be higher.
  • Check your blood sugar. Take a reading before you exercise if you're using insulin. Have a piece of fruit or a small snack if the result is below 100 mg/dL. Recheck your number after 30 minutes to be sure your levels are staying steady.
  • Be prepared. Wear a medical alert bracelet noting your diabetes and whether you take insulin. And keep glucose pills or hard candy in your pocket, just in case you feel your blood sugar starting to fall.