Exercise is the base of a healthy life! It’s also critical to how well you manage your diabetes.
Millions of people worldwide suffer from diabetes. Many don’t even know it.
According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 30.3 million Americans or 9.4 percent of the population had diabetes in 2015. Of those, 23.1 million were diagnosed and 7.2 million were undiagnosed.
Also, the association states that diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States in 2015, based on 79,535 death certificates in which diabetes was listed as the underlying cause of death (1).
So, if you have diabetes or you’re at a high risk of developing diabetes in the near future, you need to make regular exercise a priority in your life. Unfortunately, many people do not and are missing out on the benefits.
Regular exercise as well as a healthy diet are key to a successful strategy to beat or manage diabetes. Exercise lowers blood sugar in two ways:
- It increases insulin sensitivity, which means your cells are better able to use available insulin. The insulin is used by the cells to absorb sugar from the bloodstream and then used as energy for your body.
- It allows your muscles to absorb and use sugar for energy, even without insulin.
While exercise helps lower blood sugar levels in the short term, over time it also contributes to lower A1C levels.
In addition, exercise is a key tool in preventing one of the leading complications of Type 2 diabetes—cardiovascular disease.
It lowers blood pressure, cuts LDL (low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol) and raises HDL (high-density lipoprotein or “good” cholesterol) levels.
Exercise also helps burn extra body fat, strengthens muscles and bones, improves blood flow, boosts energy and mood, and reduces stress level.
A 2007 study published in Clinical Diabetes reports that physical exercise is a key component of lifestyle modification that can help individuals prevent or control Type 2 diabetes.
Although diet is probably more important in the initial phases of weight loss, incorporating exercise as part of a weight-loss regimen helps maintain weight loss and prevent gaining the weight back (2).
A 2010 study published in Diabetes Care reports that 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.
The study also reports that both aerobic and resistance training improve insulin action, at least acutely, and can assist with the management of blood glucose levels, lipids, blood pressure, cardiovascular risk, mortality and quality of life.
But exercise must be undertaken regularly to have continued benefits and likely include regular training of varying types (3).
Here are some of the best exercises for diabetic people.
Walking is one of the best and easiest ways for people of all ages to exercise, including those who have diabetes.
Brisk walking at a pace that raises your heart rate is an aerobic exercise. This type of exercise is beneficial for your overall health.
A 2005 study published in Diabetes Care reports that walking is probably one of the best things that a diabetic can do for their health (4).
Another study published in the British Journal of General Practice in 2010 reports that dog walking or other interests that promote a regular commitment to undertaking physical activity may yield long-term health benefits (5).
The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association recommend 30-minute walks at least five days per week for people with diabetes.
Before you start walking, be sure to protect your feet and prevent developing blisters or sores by wearing good quality and well-fitted athletic shoes. Also, choose athletic socks or diabetic socks made of sweat-wicking polyester fiber.
2. Tai Chi
Tai chi chuan is a traditional Chinese martial art, which combines deep diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation with gentle movement. This form of exercise is done in a slow and relaxed manner over 30 minutes.
People with diabetes can immensely benefit from this exercise, as it contributes to both fitness and stress reduction.
Tai chi also improves balance and may reduce nerve damage, a common diabetic complication.
A 2007 study published in Diabetes Care demonstrated that regular tai chi chuan exercise can increase CD4CD25 regulatory T-lymphocytes correlated with decreases of A1C levels in Type 2 diabetic patients. This may indirectly be due to better cardiopulmonary fitness after exercise or improvement in glucose metabolism (6).
A 2008 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that tai chi exercise can improve the control of Type 2 diabetes.
This type of exercise may prompt a fall in blood glucose levels, or improve blood glucose metabolism, sparking a drop in the inflammatory response. Also, it may boost fitness levels and the feeling of well-being (7).
Join tai chi classes and learn this martial art from an expert.
3. Weight Training
Those who have diabetes should consider weight training. It helps the body respond better to insulin, improves the way it uses blood sugar, aids weight loss and lowers the risk for heart disease.
Weight training also helps build muscle mass, which is important for those with Type 2 diabetes. Losing muscle mass means you will have more difficulty maintaining your blood sugar.
A 2006 study published in Diabetes Care reports that similar to aerobic exercise, resistance training has been reported to enhance insulin sensitivity, daily energy expenditure and quality of life (8).
A 2013 study published in BioMed Research International reports that resistance training is increasingly establishing itself as an effective measure to improve overall metabolic health and reduce metabolic risk factors in diabetic patients (9).
You should plan to do resistance exercise or weight training at least twice a week as part of your diabetic management plan. Make sure to schedule a day of rest between weight workouts.
Swimming is another aerobic exercise that diabetic people should include in their exercise regimen.
It helps control your blood sugar levels by improving your overall fitness and strengthening all the major muscles in your body.
A 2006 study published in Medicina (Kaunas) analyzed the effect of a 14-week swimming program on glycemic control in 14 to 19-year-old healthy girls and girls with Type 1 diabetes mellitus. They found that long-term physical activity in the water improved glycemic control for all participants (10).
Swimming also burns calories quickly, works out multiple parts of the body and does not put pressure on the joints.
This exercise is also easier on your feet than other forms of exercise, such as walking or jogging.
For swimming, use special shoes made for use in the pool. Such shoes can help prevent scraped feet and lessen the risk of slipping.
Those who have diabetes should try yoga, as it can benefit them in several ways. It can help lower body fat, fight insulin resistance and improve nerve function. These are important factors when it comes to diabetes management.
Yoga also helps reduce stress, which in turn can prevent several complications related to diabetes.
A study published in Diabetes Care in 2011 reports that yoga can be used as an effective therapy in reducing oxidative stress in people with Type 2 diabetes. In addition to standard care, yoga helps reduce body mass index (BMI) and improve glycemic control in Type 2 diabetic patients (11).
A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Science and Research found that yoga along with swimming, cycling and walking were associated with significant reduction in blood glucose in people with diabetes mellitus (12).
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research demonstrated that the yoga is effective in reducing the blood glucose levels in patients with Type 2 diabetes mellitus (13).
Some of the yoga poses that are good for diabetic people are Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Halasana (Plough Pose), Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Twist Pose), Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and Balasana (Child’s Pose), to name a few.
- Maintain an exercise log to track your activities and your blood sugar levels before and after exercising.
- Start your exercise routine with a warm-up session of 5 to 10 minutes of low-intensity aerobic activity and gentle stretching for an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
- Wear breathable and weather-appropriate clothing to prevent foot problems and heat stroke.
- When strength training, do not hold your breath. It can affect your blood pressure and cause you to feel lightheaded.
- A slight shortness of breath is normal during cardio training, but labored breathing is not. In such a case, see your doctor.
- There is no need to enroll in a gym. You can make a list of fun activities and choose one that raises your heart rate.
- You can always consult your doctor regarding the type of exercise and what time you should do it.
- If you plan to work out for more than one hour, check your blood sugar level regularly during your workout.
- Always carry a small carbohydrate snack like fruit when you go out to exercise.
- Those who do not have an active lifestyle should start slowly. Start with 10 minutes of exercise at a time, then gradually work up to 30 minutes a day.
- Work out with someone who knows you have diabetes and knows what to do if your blood sugar gets too low.
- Wear athletic shoes that fit well.
- Check and clean your feet daily. Let your doctor know if you notice any new foot problems.
- Always drink water before, during and after exercising.
- Stop exercising if you do not feel well. Don’t force yourself.
- If exercising outdoors, always have quick and easy access to emergency medical service via a cell phone or other means of communication.
- Statistics About Diabetes. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/.
- Diabetes Treatment, Part 1: Diet and Exercise. Clinical Diabetes. http://clinical.diabetesjournals.org/content/25/3/105. Published July 01, 2007.
- Metabolic changes following a 1-year diet and exercise intervention in patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20028945. Published March 2010.
- Walking and Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/28/6/1524. Published June 01, 2005.
- Type 2 diabetes and dog walking: patients’ longitudinal perspectives about implementing and sustaining physical activity. British Journal of General Practice. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2913737/. Published August 01, 2010.
- Tai Chi Chuan Exercise Decreases A1C Levels Along With Increase of Regulatory T-Cells and Decrease of Cytotoxic T-Cell Population in Type 2 Diabetic Patients. Diabetes Care. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/30/3/716. Published March 01, 2007.
- Tai Chi Exercises Improve Type 2 Diabetes Control, Study Suggests. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080331220843.htm. Published April 02, 2008.
- Resistance Training and Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/29/8/1933. Published August 01, 2006.
- Resistance Training for Diabetes Prevention and Therapy: Experimental Findings and Molecular Mechanisms. BioMed Research International. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3881442/. Published 2013.
- The effect of long-term swimming program on glycemia control in 14-19-year aged healthy girls and girls with type 1 diabetes mellitus. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16816547.
- Effect of 3-Month Yoga on Oxidative Stress in Type 2 Diabetes With or Without Complications. Diabetes Care. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/10/2208. Published October 01, 2011.
- Effect of Swimming, Cycling, Walking and Yoga Exercise on Blood Glucose in Diabetes Mellitus. International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR). https://www.ijsr.net/archive/v5i2/NOV161073.pdf.
- Effect of Yoga on Blood Glucose Levels in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4437062/. Published April 2015.