Exercise is important for everyone—but especially for people with diabetes and pre-diabetes. First and foremost, exercise burns calories and can help you trim down if you’re overweight. Shedding excess weight helps lower your blood sugar and insulin levels (even just 10 pounds can make a difference).
Even if you don’t see a drop on the scale, exercise still aids in blood sugar control by increasing insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a hormone that helps the cells all over your body pull in glucose from the bloodstream to use as energy after you eat a meal. In people with diabetes, insulin is impaired and not as efficient at moving glucose into cells. Glucose builds up in their blood after eating, and their blood sugar levels remain elevated for a longer period of time than in healthy people. The good news is, exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity so insulin is more effective at pulling glucose into cells, which translates into better blood sugar control.
In people with pre-diabetes, regular exercise can prevent or delay the onset of full-fledged diabetes. In one major study, people with pre-diabetes who exercised for 150 minutes per week, in addition to making other beneficial lifestyle changes, were able to reduce their risk of developing diabetes in the next three years by 58 percent. That’s a very encouraging finding!
People with diabetes are at an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, but exercise can help protect the cardiovascular system and mitigate some of the risk. Exercise lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride numbers and improves blood flow. Regular exercise may also reduce the risk of developing nerve disorders and other serious health complications from diabetes.
In December, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association released new exercise guidelines for people with diabetes. For optimal blood sugar control, these health organizations recommend a combination of aerobic (cardio) and strength-training exercises. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic exercise spread over at least three days each week (that works out to 30 minutes, five days a week). Popular forms of aerobic exercise include walking, swimming, biking, using an elliptical machine or stationary bike, and taking step aerobics or fitness dance classes. Walking is my preferred form of aerobic exercise because it’s low-impact (easy on your joints), doesn’t require any special equipment (just a comfortable pair of sneakers), and can be done almost anywhere. If you can’t commit to 30 straight minutes of exercise, break it up into three ten-minute spurts and space them throughout the day. You’ll still get the same health benefits.
In addition, incorporate strength-training exercises two to three days a week (about 15 minutes per session). This could involve doing exercises with light hand weights or your own body weight (such as lunges, squats, and planks), using weight machines at the gym, or following a DVD.
Always consult with your physician before starting any exercise program, and be sure to ask about exercise and medication interactions.