Why is exercise so important for people with diabetes?

People who suffer from diabetes are commonly told that the key to improved diabetes control involves lifestyle changes, including a regular exercise routine. However, it’s not always clear how and why exercise plays such a crucial role.

The word “exercise” can be intimidating, but it does not have to mean running a marathon or bench pressing your body weight. Exercise is simply getting physically active and increasing your heart rate. This can include marathon running, but it also includes walking, biking, gardening, climbing stairs, chair exercises, stretch-band exercises, Zumba, yoga, etc. If you are not ready to run that marathon, the term “physical activity” might be more comfortable.

Why is physical activity so important for people with diabetes?

A hallmark of type 2 diabetes is the inability of cells to respond to insulin, which is known as insulin resistance. As a result, glucose builds up in the blood and you get a high blood sugar reading. Physical activity helps to improve insulin sensitivity. The insulin your body produces, or that you inject, is better able to help the muscle and fat cells to use the sugar in your blood when you exercise regularly.

Exercise also burns calories, which along with a healthy diet can contribute to weight loss. Exercise and weight loss have been shown to decrease certain risk factors associated with diabetes, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Over time, the heart can learn to pump more efficiently, allowing for improved blood flow and decreased risk for stroke and other associated heart diseases.

Physical activity also improves your mood. Diabetes and depression may be linked, and exercise can reverse depression symptoms. As little as 10 – 15 minutes of exercise per day can have a noticeable effect on how you feel.

Is 15 minutes enough to improve blood sugar? That can take a little more effort. The American Diabetes Association recommends that you “get moving” somehow for 150 minutes per week — or 30 minutes a day, five days a week. This is the minimum amount that has shown significant improvement in blood sugar, cholesterol and weight.

Of course, if exercise is not currently part of your daily routine, no one expects you to begin straight out of the gates with 30 minutes every weekday. Here are steps to safely begin regular physical activity:

  1. Obtain the “OK” from your physician. Be safe!
  2. Brainstorm what works for you — walking, playing in the park with grandkids, dancing or playing Wii Fit?
  3. Start slow and go from there. Start with 5 to 10 minutes a day, then gradually add 5 minutes until you make it to your goal.

The Delaware community is full of support to help get you going. Christiana Care’s Exercise Services fitness facility is one such place that offers individualized fitness programs. The staff there will not only help you plan your physical activity program, but help monitor your blood glucose levels and trends, lipid/cholesterol levels and blood pressure. There is a membership fee that pays for this guided, supervised and controlled fitness program. There is also financial assistance for people with Medicaid that covers all costs for the fitness facility.

Good luck getting started, and enjoy the benefits of being physically active!