A little daily exercise can go a long way, especially for those with type 2 diabetes. “When I talk to patients with type 2 diabetes about exercise, I put it this way,” says endocrinologist Minisha Sood, MD. “If you could do something that could lower your A1C, improve your stress level, improve your sleep, improve your health, and had no side effects, you do it?” The answer, she says, is usually yes.
Exercise can actually bring blood glucose levels down, according to the American Diabetes Association. When you work out, your muscles need to use the available insulin to take in glucose for energy, thus lowering the levels in the bloodstream.
Not only does this lower blood glucose levels temporarily, but sticking with a regular workout groove can lower your A1C over time. (Learn more about the A1C test for managing diabetes here.)
Adding exercise to your daily routine helps protect your heart, too, which is critical because diabetes increases your heart disease risk significantly. (Here’s more about the link between heart disease and diabetes.) For example, regular exercise helps lower blood pressure, which makes it easier for the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.
“If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes and you’re beginning an exercise program,” says exercise physiologist Joan Pagano, “you want to be sure that your doctors know what you’re planning to do and can advise you on how to monitor.”
There are a few concerns to keep in mind while exercising with diabetes.
Hypoglycemia: Certain medications for diabetes can lower blood sugar. Combined with exercise, this might make blood sugar too low. Check blood sugar before, during, and after exercise to avoid hypoglycemia.
Neuropathy: Because diabetes can affect your nerves, causing numbness especially in the legs and feet, it’s important to wear well-fitting shoes and check your feet regularly for any cuts and bruises.
Intermittent claudication: These aches and cramps in the legs during exercise can be a symptom of peripheral arterial disease, which occurs when there’s blockage in blood flow in the legs. PAD is more common among people with diabetes.
For a well-rounded exercise program, include a mixture of cardio, strength training, and stretching. “Exercise doesn't have to mean gym, treadmill and elliptical,” says certified diabetes educator Sandra Arévalo, RDN. “It could mean just keeping active.”
Hate the treadmill? Here are 10 activities that burn calories that don’t feel like exercise.