For most people, exercise means aerobics like walking or running, or strength training. But another form of exercise — stretching — can have equally important benefits.
According to an article in the journal Physical Therapy Reviews, “Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle or tendon is deliberately flexed or extended.” It is usually done to make the muscles feel better and loosen them up to prevent injury.
But stretching has wider benefits that can help with diabetes. Dr. Sheri Colberg, PhD, is a professor of exercise and medicine and author of many books, including The Diabetic Athlete. She has had Type 1 diabetes for more than 45 years.
Dr. Colberg wrote of the advantages of joint mobility for health. “Limited joint mobility is…frequently observed in patients with diabetes and can by itself lead to injury and substantially lower their quality of life.”
Dr. Colberg explains that, because of elevated blood sugar levels, collagen (the rubbery stuff in joints that helps them move) becomes “glycated.” Glycated means coated with sugar. The glycation causes collagen to form sticky nets, and joints lose flexibility.
“Flexibility is a component of balance and can reduce the risk of falls,” she says. Stretching helps break up those nets, so we can move better and more securely.
“Stretching releases dopamine, which helps you feel happier and more positive about the world,” says chiropractor Dr. Simon Floreani. He says dopamine raises self-esteem and improves sleep.
The website Functional Fitness Facts cites studies reporting less pain, better sleep, and better cardiovascular health in people who stretch.
Stretching lowers blood glucose. In a small but amazing study done in Hawaii, people with diabetes or at risk for it were divided into two groups.
According to the site Peak Health Advocate, the same passive stretches were done in each group with one key difference. “In the experimental group, the person performing the stretch pushed or pulled the specific area being stretched until the participant indicated they could feel the stretch.” The therapist held them there for 30 seconds. They put the control group into the same pose, “but did not apply any tension to the muscle during the stretch.”
At 20 minutes into the 40 minute stretching session, blood glucose was down an average of 28 mg/dl in the experimental group. A significant if not huge difference, but how did it happen? The subjects weren’t actually doing anything. They weren’t burning glucose by running or pumping iron. So where did it go?
It seems possible the stretching opened up the small blood vessels in the muscles and joints. So glucose was better able to get to cells and be absorbed. This fits well with a study I heard at the ADA Scientific Sessions in 2014. The presenter said that many times, what we call insulin resistance is actually poor circulation blocking the small blood vessels. If insulin can’t even get to the cells, how can it work?
Stretching is a gentle way to improve circulation in the small blood vessels. It breaks up some of the glycation and opens up some of the kinks. It’s like giving your body some loving attention.
Our bodies spend hours cramped up in static positions, while our collagen weaves nets in our joints. Then we can’t move well, and blood, glucose, and insulin can’t get through. Some daily stretching can bring our bodies back to life.
The right ways to stretch
It’s important to stretch wisely. Improper stretching can cause damage. Here are some rules:
Guy Hornsby, Jr., PhD, of West Virginia University, says “Stretching should lengthen the muscle to the point of mild discomfort, but as soon as you reach that point, stop and hold the pose for 10 to 15 seconds and keep breathing while you are doing it.” Never go to the point of pain. If it starts to hurt, ease up or stop right away.
The Lifelong Exercise Institute site gives these instructions, among others:
• Complete at least one stretch per major muscle group, optimally holding each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds
• Stretch all parts of your body two to three times per week
• Complete equal stretching exercises on both sides of your body
• Breathe deeply during all stretches to relax your muscles more
• Stretch opposing muscle groups equally (for example, quads and hamstrings)
• Don’t bounce during stretches, as doing so can cause muscle tears and joint injuries
•Don’t hold your breath or strain while stretching
I would add to be as aware as you can be of the parts you are stretching. Imagine the blood flowing and the nerves humming and the muscles relaxing.
You might want to get help from a trainer or physical therapist to practice your stretches once or twice. To do it yourself, here’s a good article with diagrams of stretches.
Three very effective ways to stretch are yoga, tai chi, and Pilates. They all combine strengthening and movement with stretching for optimum results. Here are some resources:
This article has good information on yoga — or you might want to watch a beginning yoga video on YouTube.
Here’s a video and an article on tai chi to help get you started.
Learn more about Pilates from Defeat Diabetes.
Try stretching regularly, and see if the results aren’t much greater than you expected. Let us know how you feel afterward.