Exercise Tips for People with Diabetes

Moderate increases in activity can have significant benefits

An endocrinologist from Scripps Health in San Diego offers tips for safe ways to exercise for people with diabetes.

You may have heard that if you want to improve your fitness level, you should take at least 10,000 steps every day. To track it, you can buy a pedometer or fitness tracking device and count the steps you take while walking around your house or workplace, running errands, or walking the dog, as well as walking or jogging for exercise. It’s a relatively simple to implement, especially for people with diabetes complications who may not be able to do more demanding exercise.

Why is physical activity so important for people with diabetes?

“Even moderate amounts of exercise can help cells use insulin more effectively, and that’s important for controlling blood sugar,” says Athena Philis-Tsimikas, MD, an endocrinologist and the corporate vice president for the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute. Physical activity helps make cells more sensitive to insulin for at least 16 hours. Even a single session of moderate exercise can increase glucose uptake by at least 40 percent, which lowers blood glucose levels.

“If people with diabetes are able to reduce their blood glucose levels with consistent exercise, they may be able to reduce the amount of diabetes medication or insulin they need to manage their diabetes,” says Dr. Philis-Tsimikas. “Plus, being more physically active can help with weight loss, and that can be an important factor in controlling diabetes.”

In addition, people with diabetes often have increased risk of heart disease, stroke and circulation problems. Because regular physical activity helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improve circulation, it can reduce the risk of these complications.

Why 10,000 steps a day?

While taking 10,000 steps is a popular fitness trend, it doesn’t take into account activities such as gardening, cycling, swimming or yoga — all of which are great ways to increase your physical activity. “For most people, including those with diabetes, simply increasing your current activity level can be just as beneficial as trying to take a specific number of steps,” says Dr. Philis-Tsimikas. “Any activity that motivates us to be more physically active is great.”

Research shows that even a short exercise session can make a difference. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, just five to 10 minutes of running a day cut the risk of death from heart disease in half. Even running at speeds below 6 miles per hour reduced the risk.

How do you get started?

Remember, you don’t need to embark on a major exercise program. Just aim to increase the amount of activity you get every day. Dr. Philis-Tsimikas recommends checking with your physician or health care provider to determine which types of activity are best for you, especially if you have diabetes complications such as heart disease or neuropathy. You may need to take precautions or avoid certain types of exercise.

You may like the simplicity of taking a certain number of steps per day, and it is an easy way to get started. Many people find that using a pedometer or fitness tracker motivates them to be more active.

“Whatever you choose to do, aim to do it on a regular basis,” she says. “The benefits come with exercising consistently over time.”

Do you need special footwear?

Not necessarily, but do make sure you wear shoes that fit correctly and are appropriate for your activities. Many athletic shoe retailers will run a computerized analysis of your feet to find the best type of shoe for you.

Since diabetes can cause your feet to be more vulnerable to injuries and infections, Dr. Philis-Tsimikas recommends checking your feet and toes for cuts, bruises or any signs of redness or infection after you exercise. Call you doctor if you notice anything unusual or have a concern.

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