Everything you need to know about diabetes and exercise
For almost everyone in the world, exercise has many health benefits. But for those with type 1, type 2, pre-diabetes, or a combination of risk factors for developing diabetes, exercise offers unique advantages.
Whether walking around the block, lifting weights in a gym, or swimming laps in a pool, committing to regular exercise can help improve your body’s sensitivity to insulin. This allows the cells in your body to use blood glucose more effectively, lowering blood sugars and making it easier to manage your blood sugars long term.
Along with a healthy diet and (for some people) medication, exercise is one of the main pillars of diabetes management.
The benefits of exercising through the lens of diabetes
As mentioned above, exercising has positive health outcomes for everyone. It has been proven to help with weight loss, strengthening bones, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, and increasing your energy levels throughout the day.
But as a person with diabetes (both type 1 and type 2), you will see additional benefits from exercising. The immediate benefit is that you use your muscles to a higher degree, therefore using more energy. This makes it easier for you to control your blood sugar.
As you continue down your path of physical activity, you will also start to benefit from the long-term results:
- Reduce the risk of complications of diabetes
- Improved blood sugars, blood fats, and blood pressure
- Improved overall fitness and health
For those at risk of diabetes, a little daily exercise can help you prevent type 2 diabetes.
How much exercise do people with diabetes need?
Diabetes Canada recommends all Canadians aged 18 to 64 get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise per week as proposed by CESP. If you’re wondering what qualifies as “moderate to vigorous” physical activity, you can always use the “talk test.” You’ve hit the perfect activity level if you can still answer a short question but not hold an entire conversation.
But if you start introducing exercise into your life, start slow. Even adding 5 to 10 minutes of exercise daily is a great place to start. From there, you can work to build up to your goal of 150 minutes per week.
You should also be adding resistance training twice a week. Resistance exercises use body weight, weights/weight machines, and resistance bands to build muscle strength.
If you are a type 1 or 2 diabetic, you should consult with a qualified exercise specialist or a diabetes educator before you introduce resistance training into your fitness journey.
Why is the timing of my session so important?
Always consider the timing of exercise and how it impacts medicine or blood glucose levels. To exercise safely, people with diabetes must track their blood sugar before, during, and after physical activity.
This is especially true if you take insulin or medicine that can cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), as exercise draws on reserve sugar stored in the muscles and liver. As the body rebuilds these stores, it takes sugar from the blood.
How to stay safe when exercising with diabetes
If you’re a person with diabetes, it is a good idea to speak with your doctor or diabetes education team and get their input, especially if you have been inactive. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you start adding more physical fitness into your life:
- Wear your MedicAlert® bracelet or necklace.
- If you take insulin or medications that increase insulin levels, monitor your blood sugar before, during, and after physical activity.
- Remember, blood sugars can still drop up to 4 to 8 hours after exercise. A slow-acting carbohydrate snack, such as nuts or trail mix, can help prevent a drop in blood sugar after a workout.
- Carry fast-acting carbohydrates to treat low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)—juice, glucose tablets, or other sugary candies like Life Savers are all great options.
- If you live with type 1 diabetes, speak to your healthcare provider about additional strategies to reduce the risk of hypoglycemia during and after exercise.
- Listen to your body—if something doesn’t feel right, stop and speak with your doctor as soon as possible.
How can I become more active?
It’s clear that exercise is a great way to lower blood glucose levels, improve insulin resistance and shed weight. Here are a few ideas to get you going:
- Start slowly by making small changes to current activity levels. Find ways to bring more movement into your day, like taking the stairs and walking more. Increase your activity bit by bit, tracking it all the way.
- Set SMART goals. Variety is key. Choose an activity you enjoy to encourage regular participation—a walk or swim, a sports team practice, a martial art, or dance.
- Make it social. Enlist your friends and family to work out together.
Exercise is essential for everyone, but it has added benefits for those with diabetes. And when undertaken with care and consideration, exercise can help people with diabetes live happier and healthier lives.
Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you.