If you have diabetes — or for that matter, nearly any other chronic illness — exercise is one of the most powerful tools that can help you control your weight and blood sugar. And it can help you feel great, too.
The list of exercise benefits is long. Exercise helps control weight, lowers blood pressure, reduces harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, raises healthy HDL cholesterol, strengthens muscles and bones, and reduces anxiety. Exercise can help regulate blood sugar and increase the body's sensitivity to insulin. Both are important for people with diabetes.
Many studies have documented that exercise is a strong ally in treating diabetes. Here are a few examples:
- All forms of exercise — aerobic, resistance, and a combination of both — have been shown to be equally good at lowering HbA1c values.
- Resistance training and aerobic exercise both helped to lower insulin resistance in previously sedentary older adults at risk for diabetes. Combining the two was better than either one alone.
- People with diabetes who walked at least two hours a week were less likely to die of heart disease than their sedentary counterparts, and those who exercised three to four hours a week cut their risk even more.
- Women with diabetes who spent at least four hours a week doing moderate or vigorous exercise had a 40% lower risk of developing heart disease than those who didn't exercise.
If you have diabetes, generally it is best to exercise one to three hours after eating, when your blood sugar level is likely to be higher. If you use insulin, be sure to test your blood sugar before exercising. If it is below 100 mg/dL, eat a piece of fruit or have a small snack. This will bump your blood sugar up and help you avoid hypoglycemia. Test again 30 minutes after your snack to be sure your blood sugar level is stable. It's also a good idea to check your blood sugar after any particularly grueling workout or activity. If you're taking insulin, your risk of developing hypoglycemia may be highest six to 12 hours after exercising. Experts also caution against exercising if your blood sugar is too high (over 250).
A medical alert bracelet should be part of your workout wardrobe. It should indicate that you have diabetes and whether you take insulin. Also, keep hard candy or glucose tablets with you while exercising in case your blood sugar takes a nosedive.
To learn more about how to live a healthy life with diabetes and ways to keep your blood sugar in check and avoid complications, buy Diabetes: A Plan for Living, a Special Health Repoort from Harvard Medical School.