It’s no secret that exercise has health benefits—from helping to control weight to improving mood and delivering oxygen and nutrients needed for that energy boost. People who have been diagnosed with diabetes are no exception. According to Sheri Colberg, PhD, exercise physiologist and diabetes educator, the activities that are really important for people with diabetes fall into four main categories: aerobic (or cardio) fitness, resistance training, flexibility, and balance training. Each of these plays a role in helping to keep you healthy and happy.
In addition to helping with weight loss, which is especially important for those with type-2 diabetes, the American Diabetes Association ranks aerobic exercise as one of the most important activities for those who have been diagnosed with diabetes to engage in. Why? Not only does it improve heart health and blood circulation, but aerobic exercise also helps your body use insulin better. In general, the CDC recommends you aim for 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic exercise at least five days a week, aiming for no more than two consecutive exercise-free days. “The most common activity for people with type-2 diabetes is walking,” says Colberg. So start by engaging in 30 minutes of brisk walking to help you hit that magical 10,000 steps a day.
While aerobic training burns more calories, resistance training builds muscle, which burns glycogen, a form of stored glucose, during exercise. So get to work and muscle up. “When it comes to resistance training, the recommended amounts [for those with diabetes] don’t differ from the general population,” says Colberg. Training for at least two—but preferably three—non-consecutive days a week is key. “A few studies have shown that doing more intense training better aids blood glucose management, but the ultimate goal for people with diabetes is to try and maintain and gain muscle mass,” says Colberg. “If you’re sedentary, any type of training is going to help. Once you reach a certain level of muscular fitness, you might have to increase the resistance, or up the weight, to get more out of it.”
Maintaining muscle mass becomes even more critical as you age, because it’s the main storage space in your body for carbohydrates. “Think of your body as a carb storage tank,” explains Colberg. “If you’re already losing some muscle from the aging process, your tank is getting smaller and smaller. When you eat carbs, your body thinks ‘What am I going to do with these? I can’t put them into muscle because it’s full.’ Then, your blood glucose gets raised and some of it gets stored as fat.” You always want to keep that carbohydrate muscle tank as big as possible. That usually takes resistance training. In addition to using your own body weight and lifting weights, tools like bands, machines, and even household items can add variety to your routine.
When it comes using exercise to help manage diabetes, building balance can help lessen the blow of a staggering statistic: Research shows people with diabetes, who are 65 or older, are 17 times more likely to fall.
But working on balance doesn’t mean you have to master the crow pose or balance on a ball while juggling. Start slow. “The simplest balance training is just practicing standing on one leg at a time and holding that position,” says Colberg. If you’re looking to kick things up a notch, challenge yourself to stand on one leg and swing out the other in three different directions: straight in front, out to the side, and behind you. For people with better coordination who are looking to strengthen their balance training, small things, like picking up towels with your toes instead of bending over to get them, can help strengthen the muscles in your feet, too.
Part of what causes falls is lack of flexibility in your joints. Colberg’s recommendation: Work to get optimal range of motion around all of your joints by stretching regularly, whether it’s static (where you’re holding a stretch) or dynamic (where you’re moving while stretching).
“Because they have elevated blood glucose, people with diabetes are more at risk of having glucose bind to joint structure, like collagen, or ligaments and tendons, which can actually make them more brittle,” says Colberg. That’s why those with diabetes are more prone to overuse injuries and tendon ruptures—so improving your flexibility is important,” she says.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.