Can You Exercise Your Diabetes Away?

by Justin Fowler-Lindner, a former EMT turned health writer

Although exercise can’t single-handedly cure diabetes, it’s well established that exercise can improve blood glucose. Even better, studies show that regular physical activity can lower the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 58%! That’s because it improves insulin action and glucose control.

The only question is, which exercises are best for people with diabetes?

In this article, we explore the health benefits of exercise and diabetes, plus all of the best workouts. Let’s get to it!

5 Health Benefits of Exercise and Diabetes

If you don’t like exercise, it can be tough to make it a regular routine. However, it’s an important part of managing diabetes. For starters, you just feel better, and your blood glucose, insulin and overall health can thrive.

Let’s take a closer look at the amazing health benefits of exercise and diabetes…

1. Insulin Resistance

Diabetes is caused by problems with insulin activity in the body. Fortunately, physical activity has both short-term and long-term effects on insulin. Aerobic exercise, like running and bicycling, can be especially helpful.

According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, just one week of aerobic training can improve whole-body insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes. Training enhances the responsiveness of the muscles to insulin and the proteins involved in glucose metabolism. Plus, exercise increases fat oxidation, a key part of insulin action.

2. Blood Glucose Levels

Exercise decreases blood glucose during exercise and for up to 72 hours afterwards. This is because exercise increases liver fat content, which is strongly associated with insulin action and blood glucose control. In one recent study, a group of older men with type 2 diabetes did strength training twice a week for 16 weeks. When it was all said and done, they experienced a 7.1% reduction in average fasting blood glucose levels.

The bottom line is strength training can help you lower blood glucose naturally.

3. Reduce Inflammation

Diabetes is an inflammatory disease. Luckily, regular exercise is proven to fight chronic inflammation. For example, one recent study found that aerobic training programs can reduce inflammation in people with type 2 diabetes. Participants also improved blood glucose, blood cholesterol and blood pressure.

4. Blood Pressure and Heart Disease

High blood pressure is common in people with type 2 diabetes. Plus, the risk of heart disease is 66 -100% higher in people with both diabetes and hypertension. Luckily, aerobic exercise and resistance training can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart complications related to diabetes.

5. Weight Loss

Obesity is a major risk factor in type 2 diabetes. With that said, you don’t have to lose weight in order to experience benefits, but it sure is an added bonus! Light exercise isn’t usually enough to lose a ton of weight, but moderate-to-high intensity exercise can certainly help you shed the pounds. When it comes down to it, studies show that exercise burns fat and improves insulin activity.

10 Best Exercises for People with Diabetes

When it comes to diabetes, the combo of aerobic exercise and resistance training is best.

Resistance training, like weights and calisthenics, can lower blood glucose by increasing muscle mass. Aerobic exercise, on the other hand, helps the cells uptake blood glucose by improving insulin action.

Let’s take a closer look at the best exercise for people with diabetes…

1. Walking

Even if you’ve never “exercised” a day in your life, you’ve certainly walked, and light walking is a great place to start. After all, it counts as aerobic exercise and it’s easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Walk by yourself, walk with your partner, walk in circles, up trails, down hills, you name it! Just put one foot in front of the other and start chuggin’ along. Start with easy-to-achieve goals, like just 20 minutes a day. 

2. Yoga and Tai Chi

Yoga and tai chi combine dynamic stretching and mobility with breathwork. Here’s what researchers from from the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded:

“The study demonstrate the efficacy of Hatha yoga exercise on fasting blood glucose, lipid profile, oxidative stress markers and antioxidant status in patients with type 2 diabetes and suggest that Hatha yoga exercise and conventional PT exercise may have therapeutic preventative and protective effects on diabetes mellitus by decreasing oxidative stress and improving antioxidant status.”

Tai chi is generally less intense than yoga and is easier for beginners. Research shows that it may also improve blood glucose, but with mixed results.

3. Pilates

Pilates is a yoga-esque type of exercise created by military trainers to help rehabilitate soldiers injured in battle. Ultimately, it’s great for core strength, coordination and balance. Plus, a recent study of older women with type 2 diabetes found that it may improve blood sugar control.

4. Aerobic Dance

Aerobic dance, like Zumba, is a fun way to get your heart rate up and your weight down. A 2015 study involving 14 diabetic women found that Zumba classes helped them lose weight and reduced diabetic risk factors. Many types of aerobic exercise are proven to improve insulin activity, and now you can add dancing to the list!

5. Swimming

Swimming is easy on the joints, hands and feet, so if you have diabetic neuropathy, it’s a great option. And you don’t have to limit yourself to just swimming…

You can take part in aquatic activities like water aerobics and aqua jogging. A recent medical review found that aquatic exercise can help regulate blood sugar just as good as land-based aerobics, like running.

6. Cycling

Cycling is another low-impact option for aerobic exercise. This is great news, because roughly half of people with type 2 diabetes also have arthritis. Fortunately, riding a bike is a great way to get some aerobic exercise without having to overload the joints.

7. Team Sports

Team sports, like softball, ultimate frisbee and soccer are excellent aerobic workouts as long as your joints can handle it. Besides, it’s a heck of a lot easier to run for hours when you’re having a ball with friends. Just make sure to cool down and stretch afterwards to improve recovery and reduce soreness.

8. Calisthenics

Calisthenics includes bodyweight exercises, like push-ups, pull-ups and squats. Remember, by increasing muscle mass, resistance training helps the body take in glucose. Try to hit every major muscle group, including the legs, arms, chest, back and core. The American Diabetes Association recommends taking a day off in between each session so that your muscles can properly recover.

9. Resistance Bands

Resistance bands are exactly what they sound like — giant rubber bands that help you build muscle. Some have handles for the upper body, while others wrap around the legs. According to a recent study, resistance bands may help with blood sugar control, although not as well as weightlifting…

10. Weightlifting

Weightlifting is definitely the most intense form of resistance training. With that said, there’s no reason to feel intimidated. After all, weights come in all shapes and sizes, and you can always start light. Most gyms have weight machines as well, which are great for beginners. If you can afford to, it’s always best to hire a trainer when you’re first starting out.

Now, get out there and have some fun!

Your diabetes is going to be in big trouble, and more importantly, you’re going to feel amazing.

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