It is no secret that exercise and physical activity can help keep the body in a healthier state. Regular physical activity can help improve the circulation of your blood, maintain muscle tone, and keep your joints flexible. Your heart, muscles, and bones benefit by being stronger and less likely to become diseased or injured. Studies show that regular physical activity can help you sleep better, improve your overall energy level, and provide some stress relief by boosting your feel-good endorphins and diverting attention away from daily worries.
When you have diabetes, regular physical activity can also help with blood glucose control, both by lowering your blood glucose level directly, and by lowering your level of insulin resistance (which contributes to high blood glucose levels). It also helps to lower your blood pressure, and it keeps your lipids (blood fat levels) in check by increasing your “good” (HDL) cholesterol and lowering your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. All of these benefits together help to prevent the long-term complications of diabetes such as retinopathy (eye disease), nephropathy (kidney disease), and neuropathy (nerve damage).
In people who are at increased risk of Type 2 diabetes — a group that includes all blood relatives of people who have Type 2 diabetes — research has shown that performing regular physical activity can help prevent or delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes.
With all of these benefits for people with and without diabetes, doesn’t it make sense to make engaging in physical activity a family affair? As you consider how to get more active yourself, also think about how to include your family members in your efforts. What might help to motivate your spouse, children, or other family members to be more active? And what sort of preparation or equipment might they need to participate in the activities you enjoy?
Experts agree that those who exercise and are physically active have an easier time of staying at a healthy body weight. While being active admittedly burns more calories than being sedentary, the real benefit in regular exercise is its role in maintaining weight loss achieved through dietary and other lifestyle measures.
For people who have diabetes and are overweight, a weight loss of 5% of body weight is associated with improvement in blood glucose control and blood pressure and lipid levels. For people with prediabetes, a 7% weight loss combined with regular physical activity has been shown to significantly reduce the chances of developing Type 2 diabetes. (Prediabetes is diagnosed when blood tests show a blood glucose level that is higher than normal but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes.)
Physical activity and exercise are also associated with a decrease in visceral fat (fat that surrounds the inner organs in the abdominal region). This is important, because visceral fat is associated with insulin resistance and a higher risk of heart disease. Losing visceral fat is considered “heart healthy” whether or not you have diabetes.
Types of exercise
There are four types of activity that are commonly included in a complete exercise routine.
Physical activity. This is movement that is not formal exercise. Examples include walking, climbing stairs, and doing housework or yard work. In general, finding ways to move more and to sit less is good for your health.
Aerobic exercise. This type of exercise uses your large muscle groups and causes you to breathe faster and more deeply. Examples include brisk walking, jogging, bicycling, and swimming. The effect of aerobic exercise is to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood and to increase blood flow to your muscles and back to your lungs.
Many experts recommend performing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week (such as brisk walking) and/or at least 90 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (such as taking an aerobics class) a week. The activity should be distributed over at least three days of the week, with no more than two consecutive days without aerobic physical activity.
Resistance training. People with Type 2 diabetes are additionally encouraged to do resistance exercises, such as weight lifting, which target all major muscle groups, at least two times weekly, as long as they have no contraindications, or medical reasons not to perform resistance exercise.
Flexibility exercises. Stretching can help keep your muscles and joints limber, and that can help to minimize your risk of getting hurt. It’s best to stretch after your muscles have warmed up, so stretching after a few minutes of light activity or even at the end of your workout is preferable to stretching at the very beginning of your exercise session. When you stretch, focus on your major muscle groups (calves, thighs, lower back, etc.), and also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use when you’re active. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds until you feel mild tension; feeling pain means you’ve stretched too far. Don’t bounce while you stretch; it can cause small tears in the muscle that will make you less flexible. Repeat each stretch three or four times.
People who have diabetes are encouraged to discuss their exercise plans with their health-care provider before increasing their level of physical activity or starting a formal exercise plan. Your health-care provider may want to conduct certain medical tests prior to your starting to exercise, especially if you have been sedentary or have any diabetes-related complications. Such complications or other medical conditions may mean that certain types of exercise are better for you than others.
In addition, you and your diabetes care team should talk about how to control your blood glucose levels during exercise and when to make adjustments to your usual diabetes regimen. If you are at risk for hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), be sure to carry a portable form of carbohydrate such as glucose tablets, glucose gel, or hard candy.
Exercising with other people can also make your workouts safer if you’re at risk of hypoglycemia. Be sure to tell your exercise partners what your symptoms of hypoglycemia are so they can recognize it and assist you with prompt treatment, if necessary.
Encouraging your family members to join you in your activities can be beneficial to everyone’s health. (For tips on encouraging your family members to join you, click here.) But exercising as a family can have more than just physical benefits. It can be a time to talk, show support for one another, and have some fun together, particularly if you choose activities your family members enjoy. For some ideas on how to get everyone involved, see “How One Family Got Active.” You might also motivate your family members by using family exercise sessions as training for a desired outing such as a special hike, a day of skiing, or a trip to a climbing gym.
Be sure to set realistic goals, keep track of your progress, and above all, relish the family time together. The bottom line is that everybody wins!