For people with diabetes, regularly working out helps stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels—and leads to a healthier life!
Getting plenty of exercise is important for everyone. Exercise strengthens muscles and bones, lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol, raises “good” HDL cholesterol, controls blood pressure, and improves your overall well-being.
Carly Burton, Apria’s Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, says, “When you exercise, you are more likely to feel better, look better, and sleep better.”
If you have diabetes, exercise also can:
- Keep your blood glucose (also called blood sugar) levels in a healthy range
- Reduce insulin resistance (insulin is the hormone that allows cells in your body to use blood sugar for energy)
- Lower your HbA1c (a blood test that is used to help diagnose and monitor people with diabetes)
- Reduce your risk of heart disease and nerve damage
How Exercise Affects Blood Sugars
Exercise can lower your glucose levels
When you exercise, your body needs extra fuel for energy. And that fuel comes from blood sugar. Using your muscles burns blood sugars and helps insulin work more efficiently. That’s why exercise such as aerobic or cardiovascular training often lowers your blood glucose levels.
However, if your glucose levels drop too quickly and too much, you may face a serious medical condition called hypoglycemia.
People who take insulin or other diabetes medications have an increased risk of hypoglycemia. Most people feel the symptoms when their glucose level drops to 70 mg/dl or lower.
- Feeling shaky
- Pounding heart
Hypoglycemia can even make you pass out.
Carly Burton adds, “That’s why it’s important to check your blood glucose levels before, during, and after a workout.”
It’s also good to keep some fast-acting carbs handy to quickly raise your blood sugar level, such as:
- Glucose tablets or gels
- Fruit juice
- Regular soda (not diet)
- Sports drinks
- Hard candy, jellybeans, or a tablespoon of sugar
If you keep experiencing hypoglycemia during exercise, your doctor may adjust your insulin or diabetes meds, recommend doing a different kind of workout, and offer tips on snacking before working out.
Exercise can raise your glucose levels
On the other hand, some high-intensity workouts—weightlifting, competitive sports, sprints—may actually raise glucose levels (hyperglycemia). That’s because these workouts make it more difficult for your muscle cells to use insulin. As a result, your body produces stress hormones such as adrenaline, which signals your liver to release more glucose. Hence, higher blood sugar levels.
Whatever exercise you prefer, you can successfully manage your glucose levels by doing regular blood glucose checks before and after exercise. When you understand how your body reacts to different exercises, you can prevent your sugar levels from going too high or low.
Also, be sure to talk to your doctor, who can recommend the foods to eat before and after exercise. If you are on insulin or any diabetes medication, your doctor can help you determine if dosages need to be adjusted.
How to Make Your Workouts Safe
Exercise improves your overall health and well-being. So the last thing you want to do is hurt yourself while you exercise. Here are some tips to keep you safe:
- We can’t emphasize enough the importance of regularly checking your blood sugar levels. If you don’t already have a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), talk with your doctor about getting one. CGMs provide real-time glucose readings throughout the day and night. And they don’t require fingersticks like traditional glucose monitoring.
- Protect your feet! Wear athletic shoes that fit comfortably and are designed for whatever activity you are doing. Also, check your feet for blisters, sores, cuts, or redness—and let your doctor know of any foot problems.
- Go slow. If you aren’t currently exercising, start doing just 10 minutes a day of whatever activity is best for you. Then gradually work up to 30 minutes. If you feel weak or dizzy, stop exercising. Then try again the next day.
- Warm up and cool down. Do light exercises like stretching 5 minutes before your workout and 5 minutes after.
- Try not to exercise in really hot or really cold temperatures. Indoor activities are often a better choice.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Drink lots of water before, during, and after exercising.
- Glucose levels naturally rise between 4-8 am, so try to exercise later in the day.
- Wear a medical ID tag or bracelet that identifies you as a person with diabetes.
How to Make Your Workouts Fun
Exercising shouldn’t be a bore or a chore. It should be fun! Here are ways to make your workouts more enjoyable:
- Pick an activity you like. Don’t like going to the gym? Go for a walk. Don’t like running? Try swimming. The point is, get your body moving. Choosing an activity you enjoy makes it far more likely that you’ll keep doing it.
- Tell a friend. Work out with someone you know and trust. Or take a class with a group of like-minded people. The time will go by faster if you share your workout with people you like.
- Listen to music. Tune in to a podcast. These kinds of activities can help motivate you to work harder—and make the activity you are doing more enjoyable.
- Make exercise a normal part of your life. The more often you do it, the sooner it will become a habit. And the better you’ll feel—both physically and emotionally.
Plan Ahead Before Working Out
Apria’s Carly Burton sums up: “Before starting any exercise program, talk to your doctor. Together, you can determine which activities are right for you. You can also determine if you need to adjust the foods you eat or the medications you take before starting an exercise plan.”