Benefits of Exercise for Diabetics

Benefits of Exercise for Diabetics


Regular, moderate exercise can delay, and in some cases prevent, the onset of type 2 diabetes. It also offers dramatic benefits for people with type 1 diabetes, gestational diabetes and other forms of diabetes. Routine physical activity is a cornerstone of diabetic management, along with diet, regular monitoring and medication (if prescribed).

To gain maximum benefits, patients are often advised to exercise for about 30 minutes a day at least five days a week. However, it is important for individuals to consult their physician before starting an exercise program and to use more or less exertion as instructed. Scientists have found that diabetes patients are much more likely to exercise when their physician helps them devise a program.

Exercise offers many benefits for people with diabetes. They include:

  • Lower glucose (blood sugar)
  • Reduced insulin resistance (a condition in which the cells have a diminished response to insulin)
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved cholesterol
  • Achievement and maintenance of a healthy weight
  • Fewer dietary restrictions
  • Decreased stress

Consistent physical activity also helps lower the risk of developing complications including heart conditions, stroke  and diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage). General benefits of exercise that affect people with diabetes and nondiabetics alike include:

  • Strengthened immune system
  • Reduced risk of developing some diseases such as certain cancers
  • Improved blood circulation
  • Improved strength, flexibility, endurance and mobility
  • Improved mental health, alertness and memory

Benefits of exercise for diabetics

When combined with a nutritious diet and medication (if prescribed), regular exercise provides significant benefits for individuals with diabetes. Patients should consult their physician before starting or altering an exercise program. People are often advised to exercise for about 30 minutes at least five days a week. However, individual needs vary. For example, a patient who is prone to hypoglycemia, hypoglycemia unawareness, cardiac irregularities or foot problems may be prescribed a different program.

Exercise can help people with diabetes:

  • Lower glucose (blood sugar). Diabetes is characterized by the inability to produce or efficiently use insulin, a hormone that regulates glucose. Too much or too little glucose in the bloodstream can result in a variety of medical complications. Muscles use glucose for energy during exercise. The increased blood flow during exercise expands blood vessels and allows more glucose and oxygen to enter the muscles. The body taps into its blood glucose reserves during and after activity to fulfill this energy requirement, reducing blood glucose levels for several hours after exercise. The degree of reduction depends on the duration and intensity of the exercise session.
  • Reduce insulin resistance (a condition in which the cells have a diminished response to insulin). Insulin resistance occurs when the body produces a sufficient amount of insulin but is unable to detect its presence or use it efficiently. Dysfunction in using insulin impairs control of glucose, which can be very dangerous. Insulin resistance is a key component of type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes who become sedentary and overweight can develop insulin resistance, a condition known as double diabetes.
  • Reduce high blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure occurs when the tension of the blood in the walls of the arteries is greater than normal. It is a major risk factor for developing the cardiovascular problems common to people with diabetes.
  • Improve cholesterol (a substance similar to fat that is present in all humans) profile. Studies indicate that regular physical activity helps improve total cholesterol in three ways:

    • Increases high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol, HDLs travel freely throughout the bloodstream and do not cling to the walls of arteries. HDLs help prevent heart disease and stroke by carrying cholesterol away from the arteries, back to the liver and out of the body.
    • Reduces low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Also known as “bad” cholesterol, LDLs cling to artery walls and hinder blood flow to body parts.
    • Reduces triglycerides (fatty material that circulates through the blood or is stored as fat tissue). Elevated triglyceride levels in the blood increase the risk of plaque buildup and heart disease.

  • Promote weight loss and management. Adhering to a regular exercise program helps patients achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Research has demonstrated that it is almost impossible to maintain weight loss without an exercise program. Abdominal obesity has been linked to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and double diabetes. Frequent physical activity can dramatically reduce fat deposits in the midsection.
  • Reduce dietary restrictions. Many people with diabetes are limited in the amount of food they can eat each day. Because exercise burns calories (units of energy or heat) people with diabetes who participate in regular physical activity are generally able to eat more, control glucose and still maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Relieve stress. Excess stress can raise blood glucose levels. This, in turn, can lead to diabetic complications. During exercise, the body releases special hormones called endorphins, which induce feelings of relaxation and well-being. These endorphins counteract the effects of stress and lower glucose levels.

Role in prevention of complications

In addition to helping people with diabetes manage their glucose (blood sugar), regular physical activity can also lower their risk of developing certain conditions related to diabetes. Prominent among these are cardiovascular diseases including:

  • Heart conditions. People with diabetes are at greater risk of developing heart disease than nondiabetics because of the effects of diabetes on blood fats and excess glucose on the blood vessels. However, regular exercise can reverse hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), a major risk factor for heart disease. It can also affect two other major risk factors by lowering blood pressure and controlling cholesterol.
  • Stroke. An event in which the flow of oxygen to the brain is restricted. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), people with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have a stroke than individuals without diabetes. Over time, elevated glucose (hyperglycemia) can damage the blood vessels that lead to the brain, causing stroke. Regular physical activity helps people with diabetes regulate their glucose and prevent this hazardous condition.
  • Diabetic angiopathy. Disease that affects the blood vessels. Regular exercise can help reduce excess glucose and body weight, both of which lead to increased risk of angiopathy in people with diabetes.

Exercise can also help fight:

  • Diabetic neuropathy. Nerve damage that is caused by diabetes. Though the exact cause of neuropathy remains unknown, research indicates that patients with poor glucose control are more likely to develop this condition than those who regulate their glucose through exercise and nutrition. Exercise and diet in people with prediabetes can reduce neuropathic pain and possibly even reverse damage to nerves, researchers have found.
  • Diabetic nephropathy. Kidney disease that is caused by diabetes. It is the most common cause of chronic kidney failure in the United States. Regular physical activity is key in the prevention of this disorder because of the resulting improved glucose control and weight loss or maintenance. For patients undergoing dialysis, exercise has been found to increase effectiveness of sessions and to reduce side effects.
  • Diabetic retinopathy. An eye disease in which the small blood vessels in the retina leak fluid and become swollen. Patients who control their glucose levels and body weight through consistent exercise are less likely to develop retinopathy and other eye conditions including glaucoma.
  • Skin disorders and foot problems. Exercise helps prevent these common diabetic complications by improving circulation and glycemic control.
  • Periodontal disease. Reducing hyperglycemia through physical activity can help prevent dental conditions.
  • Sexual dysfunction. Controlling blood pressure, glucose and weight with exercise reduces the odds of sexual problems. Kegel exercises, clenching exercises that strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, can improve sexual response and help prevent urinary incontinence in women and men.

General benefits of exercise

Regular exercise offers additional health benefits that can be enjoyed by people with or without diabetes, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). About 30 minutes of exercise a day for a minimum of five days a week provides the following general benefits:

  • Reduces the risk of developing many medical conditions, including:
    • Childhood obesity and adult obesity
    • Insulin resistance, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes
    • High blood pressure, atherosclerosis, unhealthy levels of cholesterol, metabolic syndrome and coronary artery disease
  • Cancer, including tumors of the colon, breasts and prostate
  • Musculoskeletal disorders including osteoporosis (a disease that weakens the bones) and back pain
  • Increases the immune system’s function
  • Improves circulation
  • Lowers resting heart rate
  • Develops lean muscle, promotes bone, muscle and joint health, and improves strength, flexibility and endurance
  • Helps prevent constipation
  • Enhances mental alertness, memory and other cognitive functions
  • Reduces stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improves mood and self-esteem
  • Boosts energy and sexual performance
  • Improves sleep (unless performed shortly before bedtime)

Questions for your doctor regarding exercise

Preparing questions in advance can help patients have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following questions about the benefits of exercise for people with diabetes:

  1. How can exercise help me prevent prediabetes or diabetes?
  2. How can it help me control my type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes?
  3. Is exercise still important if I have type 1 diabetes? Can it keep me from developing insulin resistance and double diabetes?
  4. Can exercise keep me from developing diabetic complications?
  5. Can it also help me prevent cancer and other diseases?
  6. What exercise program do you recommend for me?
  7. Does exercise pose any risks with my diabetes?
  8. What are the risks if I do not exercise?
  9. How does exercise affect my blood sugar and eating schedule?
  10. Should I exercise on days I do not feel well?
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