Here’s some good news for the estimated 20.8 million Americans with diabetes: Doctors say exercising regularly and losing just a few pounds of excess weight can dramatically improve their health.
Just 30 minutes of daily physical activity—aerobic exercise for the heart and lungs and modest weight training to strengthen muscles—is all that’s required to help diabetics control their glucose, or blood sugar, levels.
Glucose fuels our bodies. It’s converted from food and, with the help of insulin, stored in our cells. In type 1 diabetes, the body doesn’t produce enough insulin; in type 2, the body resists its own insulin. Either way, glucose piles up in the bloodstream and can cause serious, even life-threatening complications.
Exercise benefits diabetes patients by:
- increasing the muscles’ demand for glucose to power workout routines
- improving insulin function by helping rid the body of fat cells that partly prevent insulin from moving glucose into muscles
- boosting cardiovascular health by strengthening the heart, increasing “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and reducing “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol so arteries remain open.
In most cases, people with diabetes can do almost any activity without worry, as long as their blood-sugar levels are under control. But if you have diabetes, it’s still important to get your doctor’s clearance before you begin working out. Ask him or her to recommend exercises that will benefit you the most. For example, swimming is often better than running for patients who’ve lost some feeling in their feet. And if you’re prone to low glucose reactions—when blood glucose falls below your normal level and you begin feeling nervous, shaky, sweaty or tired—it’s best if you exercise indoors with a group.
Ensure a safe workout by checking your glucose levels before and after you exercise. Carry a quick-sugar snack like raisins, soda or a sports drink in case of a low blood sugar reaction. Before exercising, always warm up muscles to avoid injuring them, and drink plenty of water before, during and after your routines.
Remember, our bodies need to get fit two ways—with aerobic activity as well as with strength training. Weight-resistance exercises help muscles become stronger, burn fat cells and improve your posture and appearance.
For cardiovascular fitness, try aerobic exercises such as walking or hiking, bicycling, tennis, yoga, Pilates and tai chi. At the gym, use a stairclimber or a treadmill or get an upper- and lower-body workout on an elliptical machine.
Complement your aerobic activity with strength-building workouts on alternate days. Use hand weights or weight machines to perform one or two sets of eight to 12 repetitions of light-weight lifts. Your muscles should feel tired at the end of each set but shouldn’t be burning or trembling.