Exercise and Diabetes

Diabetes is a serious health issue for a growing segment of our population.  The most common form, Type 2, is commonly treated by a combination of diet, exercise and medication.  The more control you can exert over your diet and exercise, the more you can reduce or eliminate the need for medication.  Here are some thoughts on the intersection of diabetes and exercise.

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder related to how the body converts food into energy for our cells.  When we eat, the food is converted into glucose, a form of sugar.  This glucose travels through our blood stream to provide energy (fuel) for our cells.  Glucose bonds with insulin in order to pass through the cell membrane and become available to the cell as energy.  This well-balanced cycle of glucose from our food plus insulin from our pancreas goes on without our knowledge or attention, except for people with diabetes.  Without enough insulin in the blood stream, the glucose cannot enter the cells, and the cells essentially starve, even though they are surrounded by glucose.

There are two major types of diabetes, creatively called type 1 and type 2.  About five percent of diabetics have type 1 diabetes.  With type 1 diabetes, the part of the pancreas that secretes insulin is destroyed by the body's own immune system.  This means that a type 1 diabetic's pancreas makes no insulin.  To remain alive, a type 1 diabetic must take insulin regularly, in balance with their diet and exercise.  Since insulin is digested in the stomach, insulin must be injected to be effective.  Balancing exercise, diet and insulin for type 1 diabetics is far too complex for an article of this nature, so we will be focused entirely on type 2 diabetics.

The vast majority of diabetics have type 2 diabetes.  With type 2 diabetes the body continues to secrete insulin, but the body's ability to use the insulin has decreased.  Over the years, the amount of insulin secreted will also decrease.  This form of diabetes is often associated with age, obesity, physical inactivity and genetic predisposition. 

Type 2 diabetics can improve their insulin uptake through diet, exercise and medication.  A recent government study showed that just losing 5-7% of your body weight can delay or possibly prevent type 2 diabetes.  In addition, if you already have symptoms of diabetes, a mild exercise program can help with weight control, improve your cardiovascular system and improve your body's acceptance of insulin.

For best results, combine a good diet with daily exercise.  Almost any kind of cardio exercise will do.  Whatever you enjoy, just get your heart rate up for 30 minutes.  This helps to reduce your blood sugar levels.  High blood sugar, the result of glucose that does not have insulin bound to it, can inflict long term damage to your organs, cause numbness (called neuropathy) in your fingers and toes and reduce circulation to your extremities.  By keeping to a daily regimen of healthy eating and moderate exercise, your blood sugar can remain within safe bounds with little or no medication.  Of course, consult your doctor before changing your medication dosages!

The only area of concern for exercising with type 2 diabetes is the potential for low blood glucose, called hypoglycemia.  This can make you feel shaky or light headed, confused or irritable.  In extreme cases you can lose consciousness.  That makes it important to be aware of the symptoms and have a ready source of fast sugar (Skittles are very popular) on hand just in case.  Test your blood before strenuous exercise and stay hydrated.  Exercising with a buddy is especially good for diabetics so that the buddy can help out if a low blood sugar event makes it hard for you to help yourself.

Type 2 diabetes is a challenge for many of us, but with responsible eating and a healthy approach to activity, you can enjoy life to the fullest.

Do you have type 2 diabetes?  Click on the Comment button and tell us your exercise tips!

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