How Exercise Makes It Easier To Control Your Diabetes

So your physician just advised that your blood sugar is higher than normal, or maybe you have already been diagnosed with diabetes. Although the focus is often on diet and medications when discussing with your physician how to control your diabetes, physical activity – yes, the dreaded word “exercise” – can play a big role in helping you control your blood sugar and overall health.

If you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, you need to look at physical activity not as a nuisance or an unwelcome activity, but rather in a whole new light. An additional 20 to 30 minutes of any type of exercise to your schedule three to four days a week can go a long way in improving your health status. Participating in group exercises in a local gym or sports club (for example, joining a regular swimming or yoga class) can also help motivate you to maintain a regular exercise regimen. Plus, exercising with a group of regulars can be very motivating socially as well and can serve as a support system when you might feel like throwing in the proverbial towel.

But what if you don’t want to pump iron at the gym? Don’t downplay the benefits of activities such as vacuuming the house, choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator at work, and walking around your local mall. These count as exercise, too. Since everyone is different in the amount of exercise they like to do (or can do) and can perform safely, it is a good idea to review with your physician which exercises might be best for you. Your physician will be able to consider what is medically safe for you to try and recommend specific approaches for exercise depending on your heart health status, whether you might have diabetes-related neuropathy (loss of sensation) in your feet, or whether your vision might have been affected by the disease.

Additionally, your healthcare team can be a wonderful resource for specific programs in your community that could help you get active and stay active. Some of the more structured exercise programs that can involve personal trainers might require a note from your physician to make sure that you are medically able to participate, so this is one more reason to let your diabetes team know what you are planning.

And if you are still needing a little more of a nudge, here are just a few of the many benefits exercise offers:

Blood sugar (glucose) control

Exercise helps glucose get into body cells where it is converted into energy for your body to function. Exercise also lowers the amount of body fat and increases the amount of muscle in your body. Muscles take up glucose and use it for energy in a mechanism separate from how insulin works to lower glucose levels.

It is important to note how your blood sugar responds to exercise to prevent blood sugars that are too low, a condition called hypoglycemia. You can see these possible sugar fluctuation patterns by checking your blood sugar before and after physical activity, as well as noting the type of physical activity that caused the blood sugar change. Your diabetes-controlling medications might need adjustment to account for physical activity, so keeping track of your blood sugar patterns with exercise becomes a very powerful tool to help make the appropriate changes, whether dosing changes, changing to another type of medication, or even decreasing your medication.

Lower blood pressure

As with any other muscle in your body, exercise makes your heart stronger. With regular exercise, your heart becomes strong enough to require less effort to pump more blood. In turn, this causes less force on your arteries, which will result in lower blood pressure. Regular exercise also helps with maintaining a normal weight, which contributes to lower blood pressure.

It typically takes about one to three months of regular exercise to see the effects of lower blood pressure. As mentioned earlier, everyone is different in the amount of exercise they can do, or want to try, so it is very important to talk to your physician about your exercise plans, especially if you have any heart or blood vessel disease which can limit the amount of exercise you can perform safely.

Improved cholesterol levels

Exercise helps your cholesterol by increasing the amount of high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also known as “good” cholesterol. Increasing this HDL cholesterol to as high a level as possible is good for your heart health. And exercise also can decrease triglycerides – blood sugar fats. High triglyceride levels (hypertriglyceridemia) are believed to be associated with increased risk for heart disease in both men and women, perhaps more so for women. And it is well known that people who exercise regularly have lower triglyceride levels than those individuals that are sedentary.

Weight control

Routine physical activity also boosts your metabolism to help you lose and maintain a healthy weight. Simply allotting an extra 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a few times a week can help you lose weight, which can contribute to multiple benefits, as mentioned above.

Overall sense of well-being

The relationships between anxiety, depression and exercise aren’t entirely clear, but working out and other forms of physical activity can lessen feelings of anxiety or depression and make you feel better. Exercise may also help keep anxiety and depression from coming back once you’re feeling better. It might be the last thing you want to do, but if you get moving, your endorphin levels (natural hormones that your body makes that are associated with feeling good) increase. Stress is more manageable. Some experts feel that exercise can decrease immune system chemicals that can worsen depression, and others note that when you exercise, your body temperature increases, another calming factor. Plus, the sense of self-confidence that often accompanies exercise and the social interaction of a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.

So what are you waiting for? The skies are sunny and warm weather is here, so take a deep breath and take that exercise plunge.

Dr. Miriam Thomas is a board-certified physician in Internal Medicine and currently an Endocrinology Fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her interests include obesity, diabetes and thyroid diseases.