August 29, 2014
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Diabetes

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Diabetes and the benefits of exercise

People can rattle off a lot of reasons why they don't exercise, but most are just excuses. I don't have the time. It hurts too much. It takes too much effort. I don't see the point. I don't enjoy it.

On the other hand, one could also rattle off a bunch of reasons why we could all benefit from regular physical activity. Not only can exercise help to prevent type 2 diabetes, it also helps to strengthen bone, improve energy, reduce stress, and support brain function. And exercise specifically targets three areas of great concern for those with diabetes:

  • It's good for the heart. Cardiovascular disease complications can be blamed for up to 80% of deaths of people with diabetes. When we exercise, the muscles of the heart contract and boost blood flow through arteries, which triggers positive changes to resting heart rate and blood pressure. Regular exercise also helps to keep good and bad cholesterol at healthy levels. Good blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels lead to a decreased risk of heart and blood vessel disease.
  • It helps us reach and maintain a healthy weight. At least 8 out of 10 people newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. Further, 1 in 5 overweight people are at risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health problems that include high "bad" triglycerides, low "good" cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Combined together, these individual problems lead to an increased risk of health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to lose excess weight.
  • It helps us control our blood glucose levels. Insulin resistance refers to the body not responding to the insulin that is being made by the pancreas. Regular exercise helps to improve the body's sensitivity to insulin and helps to manage blood glucose levels. By adding physical activity to your daily routine, you may reduce your need for medications to manage your blood glucose levels. Any kind of exercise helps, but a combination of aerobic and resistance training has been proven most effective. Aerobic exercise gets your heart and lungs working (e.g., brisk walking, swimming, dancing), while resistance training build muscle strength (e.g., weight training). And better blood glucose control means reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, and other diabetes-related complications.

Even after hearing of the amazing benefits of physical activity, many people still don't exercise. While a fitness routine poses some challenges for people with diabetes (see below), the benefits of exercise simply outweigh any excuses we could make:

  • I don't have time. The Canadian Diabetes Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week. A week contains over 10,000 minutes. Devoting just 150 of those minutes to the betterment of your body doesn't sound like that much, does it? Break the 150 up into fifteen 10-minute increments across the week, or five 30-minute walks. All of the little efforts count, too: pulling up weeds in the garden, raking leaves, parking further from the store, walking instead of driving to work, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • My body can't take that much activity. What you should remember about that "150 minutes" recommendation is that this is a number you build up to! You don't have to do 150 minutes per week right off the bat. Work your way up to that number slowly and gradually. Do something active for 5 to 10 minutes at a time until you're able to do more.
  • Exercise bores me. Switch up your routine and sample from the 3 main areas of fitness activities. Try aerobic exercises, like brisk walking, dancing, swimming, rollerblading, and bicycling. For your flexibility, stretch in front of the TV or give a yoga class a try. To improve your strength and resistance, keep hand weights around at home or enrol in a course to train you on the weight machines at the local gym. And recruit a workout buddy to keep you honest and to keep you motivated.

But before you hop on the treadmill or dive into the deep end, consider a few fitness concerns that are especially important for people with diabetes:

  • Talk to your physician or health care team first. Exercise offers loads of benefits, but it can also be tricky for a few reasons. An exercising body moves glucose from the blood to the muscle more quickly, which can lead to hypoglycemia. Those who use insulin or other medications may need to take special precautions or more closely track their blood glucose before, during, and after exercise. If you're at cardiovascular risk, you may need to undergo a stress test to measure how much physical activity your body can bear. Other diabetes-related complications may come with fitness restrictions. Your physician or primary health care provider can help you plan for all of these challenges.
  • Track your blood glucose levels. Record your blood glucose before, during, and after exercise to note patterns, fluctuations, and plan for future exercise. This is especially important when you first begin a new fitness activity.

Pack your precautions in your gym bag. Wherever, whenever, and however you decide to exercise, be careful. Exercise with a buddy. Listen to your body and know its signs of exhaustion. Drink plenty of water and keep fast-acting carbohydrates handy (glucose tablets are easy to tote). Remember to bring your blood glucose meter with you.


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