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Whether you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, exercise is an important part of your management and treatment program. Weight loss and weight management are the most common reasons people give for starting an exercise program. However, exercise has so many more benefits than how it may, or may not, affect body size – especially for diabetics.
To understand how exercise benefits diabetics, it’s important to understand what diabetes is and how it affects your body.
Diabetes: A Brief Overview
The name diabetes mellitus comes from Greek. Loosely translated, it means “sweet flow,” because high levels of blood sugar cause excessive urination, and the urine is sweet. Yes, sometimes linguistic origins are better left unsaid.
There are two types of diabetes mellitus:
However, the words juvenile, late-onset, and adult are misleading because adults can develop Type 1 and children can develop Type 2. What determines the type you have is not age, but how your body makes and uses insulin – the hormone that helps your cells use sugar.
Diabetes and Insulin
With Type 1 diabetes, your body does not make insulin at all. With Type 2 diabetes, your body makes insulin, but your cells are resistant to it. Both types of diabetes cause excess sugar in the blood.
Type 1 diabetes is believed to be caused by an autoimmune disorder that damages the insulin cells in the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes is believed to be caused by heredity, with lifestyle being a huge factor in triggering disease onset.
Both types tend to have the same symptoms: excessive hunger, excessive thirst, excessive urination, fatigue, and sudden weight loss or weight gain, however they often have different treatments.
People with Type 1 diabetes need to take insulin, while people in the early stages of Type 2 can often control their condition with lifestyle changes, or take medication that helps their cells respond to insulin. Patients often start taking insulin in the later stages of the disease, when the cells in the pancreas stop working.
If left untreated, or if not properly controlled, diabetes can cause several complications including:
- Nerve damage, or neuropathy;
- Blood vessel damage;
- Circulatory problems
- Hypertension; and
- Kidney disease.
Diabetes and Exercise
Exercise stimulates your body to use blood sugar, it encourages circulation and improves cardiovascular fitness, and it happens even if you don’t lose weight.
In people with type 1 diabetes, exercise stimulates your cells to absorb and use blood sugar, even in the absence of insulin, which reduces the amount of sugar in your blood. In people with type 2 diabetes, exercise makes your cells more sensitive to the insulin you already produce, which helps your cells absorb and use blood sugar and reduce the amount of sugar in your blood.
Circulation and Cardiovascular Fitness
Exercise increases your heart rate, which increases your circulation. Regular cardiovascular exercise also challenges your heart and lungs, making them stronger, and strengthens your blood vessels.
Things to Consider
You should always consult your physician before starting an exercise program.
If you have existing circulatory problems, or blood vessel damage, you should consider using diabetic socks when you exercise. These socks are designed to encourage circulation, and to protect your toes, which could be vulnerable to injury. Realizing the benefits of diabetic socks can make all the difference in your exercise routine.
You should continue taking your medication and taking regular blood sugar readings. If you believe that the exercise is helping you manage your sugar, you should always consult with your doctor before discontinuing your medication.
Because exercise can lower your blood sugar, always keep emergency glucose on hand in case your levels drop too low. One easy way to keep sugar on hand is to exercise with a non-diet sports drink instead of water.
While exercise can cause your blood sugar to drop, it can also cause it to rise. Your liver stores a small supply of glucose for emergencies. Exercise often triggers your liver to release that emergency glucose, causing your blood sugar levels to rise. It’s important to check your blood sugar levels before and after you exercise.
If you notice any shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pains, or numbness in your feet and hands, stop exercising and seek help immediately.