4 Pillars of Physical Activity for Diabetics


Jennifer Larson

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We know you know that exercise is good for you. But are you aware of all the specific benefits of keeping active as a diabetic?

Regular physical activity can help:

  • Keep your blood sugar level under control

  • Build muscle, which uses glucose more efficiently than fat does—which also helps keep your blood glucose levels down

  • Lower your blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels

  • Lower your risk of heart disease and stroke

If that’s not enough to convince you, how about this? Physical activity can reduce your stress levels and help you sleep better at night.
Your best bet for getting and staying healthy is to incorporate each of the four pillars of physical activity into your life:

Regular activity throughout the day

Tempted to take the elevator? Take the stairs instead. That’s the sort of small activity that adds up throughout the course of the day. Other strategies include pacing while you’re talking on the phone, parking your car in a more remote spot and walking in, taking the dog for a walk, raking leaves, and washing your own car. You could even hold a “walking meeting” and invite your coworkers to join you for a mobile discussion.

Aerobic exercise

Get your heart rate up by walking, swimming, hiking, dancing or biking. You can start slow by beginning with five or 10 minutes of exercise and build from there. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, five days per week. You want to be working hard enough that you’re breathing quickly but you’re not completely out of breath.

When you’re ready, consider boosting your 30 minutes of exercise to 60 minutes most days of the week. You can split those 60 minutes up into a couple of parts—30 minutes of walking in the morning, followed by 30 minutes of riding the stationery bike later in the day—if it works better for you and your schedule.

Strength-training exercise

Try to incorporate some type of strength-building exercise into your routine two or three days a week. Using weights will help you build muscle and strengthen your bones. Building your muscle tissue will help you lose weight—and keep it off—because muscle burns more calories than fat does.

Try using small hand weights or the weight machines at the gym. Just be sure to start at a low level so you don’t injure yourself. As you become stronger, you can gradually increase the weight size. Elastic bands are another option that allows you to build strength by working against the resistance of the bands. Plus, they’re portable, so you can take your strength-building routine on the road when you travel. 

Balance and flexibility activities

Stretching will help keep you limber and can reduce your risk of falling or sustaining other injuries. Warm up your body each morning with five or 10 minutes of gentle stretching. Don’t bounce or do anything that hurts—you just want to feel “mild tension,” according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Working on your balance can help you be steadier on your feet, which also reduces your chances of falling and injuring yourself. Two easy balance exercises suggested by the ADA include standing on one leg for several seconds, then switching, or walking backward or sideways.

If you like the social approach, try a class—many community and rec centers offer class in tai chi, Pilates and yoga for beginners.

Develop a plan with your doctor

You might just find yourself looking forward to your workouts. But before you launch into any exercise, first consult your doctor. Together, you can develop a plan for what activities to do, and how to warm up and cool down at each session. Your doctor can recommend a workout schedule around meal times to balance exercise and blood sugar levels. Your doctor or diabetes educator may also suggest recording all your activities so you can track your progress.

Get your family on board, too—physical activity has been proven to help reduce a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Dec 23, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes. Diabetes Care. January 2004;27(suppl1):s58-s62. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/suppl_1/s58.full
  2. What I Need to Know About Physical Activity and Diabetes. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/physical_ez/
  3. 5 Best Exercises for People with Diabetes. Cleveland Clinic. http://health.clevelandclinic.org/2014/06/5-best-exercises-for-people-with-diabetes/
  4. Physical Activity: What Can Physical Activity Do For Me? American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/are-you-at-risk/lower-your-risk/activity.html
  5. Be More Active Throughout the Day. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/fitness/types-of-activity/be-more-active-throughout-the-day...
  6. Stretching and Balance Exercises. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/fitness/types-of-activity/stretching-and-balance-exercises....
  7. What We Recommend. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/fitness/types-of-activity/what-we-recommend.html

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