Diabetes And Exercise: 10 Tips For Starting A Successful Workout Program

Did someone convince you to start an exercise program… or at least convince you to think about starting one? Planning to start exercising, or at least to get moving, can be intimidating, and understandably so. Gyms look overwhelming, cycling looks dangerous, walking looks boring, and yoga looks just plain strange. Add diabetes to the mix and it may be easier to just scrap the whole thing.

But, and you’ve no doubt heard this a thousand times before, exercise has so many benefits! The benefits are both physical and mental, short- and long-term. So if you’re considering adding more movement to your life, good for you! People with diabetes of all types do have more things to consider than exercisers without diabetes (what’s new?), but an exercise program is totally doable. And it’s definitely worth it!

Before jumping in to how to prep for your workout, let’s get a little more motivated!

Photo: flickr/Sayer and James
Photo: flickr/Sayer and James

Physical Health Benefits of Exercise

  • Exercise lowers your blood pressure over time. Your risk for cardiovascular disease doubles if you have diabetes and high blood pressure, so lowering those numbers should be of utmost importance. High blood pressure is also associated with insulin resistance, and who needs that?
  • Exercise can help with weight loss. Yes, this one is a little obvious, but being overweight increases risk of cardiovascular disease and increases insulin resistance. A loss of just 7% of your body weight can have a positive impact on insulin resistance and reduce risk factors for cardiovascular problems.
  • Exercise increases insulin sensitivity. Muscles are better able to take up glucose both during and after exercise.
  • Exercise reduces blood sugar. Exercises reduces blood sugar in the short term since your muscles are taking up glucose, and exercise can also lower your A1C when performed on a regular basis. Score!
  • Exercise increases mobility and energy. Consistent exercise actually helps your body have more energy, and movement helps prevent the muscle loss that comes with age. For best results, include a mix of cardiovascular, resistance, and flexibility exercises in your routine (but it’s fine to start out with just one element or a little of each).

Are you motivated yet? Well, we have more!

Photo: AdobeStock/Saltodemata
Photo: AdobeStock/Saltodemata

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

  • Exercise reduces stress. Nothing releases tension like a workout (especially with a punching bag)! Expect the mood enhancement to kick in as soon as 5 minutes after your workout. According to the American Council on Exercise, “One exercise session generates 90 to 120 minutes of relaxation response.” Now that’s a good payoff!
  • Exercise makes you feel great. Apart from just stress relief, exercise releases hormones that make you feel good about life in general. You may have heard exercisers talking about their addiction to endorphins or referring to a “runner’s high.” It’s real, folks! No wonder seemingly crazy gym-goers sign up eagerly for the gym’s next 5am gut-busting boot-camp class.
  • Exercise improves sleep.
  • Exercise improves libido.
  • Photo: AdobeStock/biker3
    Photo: AdobeStock/biker3
  • Exercise improves self-esteem. Exercise provides you with unending opportunities to conquer your goals. Completing a workout is a huge boost all by itself, but each time you work for a few more minutes, lift a couple more pounds, or run a little faster you will feel super accomplished. Maybe you haven’t hit your goal weight yet, but you were the dancing queen in Zumba class, so who cares? Exercise shows you how amazing you already are.
  • Exercise can make you smarter. Learning how to do a new physical activity can improve cognition, and exercise increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is a neurotransmitter that stimulates the production of new brain cells. Win-win!
  • Exercise is addictive. That post-workout high gives your brain a “this is great!” boost that explains why people get up at the crack of dawn 5 days a week to get their run in before work. An activity that compelling, and that good for you, is certainly worth exploring! (No need to get up at the crack of dawn. Workout whenever works best for you.)
Photo: AdobeStock/Rido
Photo: AdobeStock/Rido

Okay, so hopefully you’re convinced that exercise isn’t a horrible idea. The thing is, most people know that exercise is good for them, but the trouble comes in when figuring out how to do it. When diabetes is a factor, creating an exercise plan can be that much more confusing. But don’t give up!

1. Talk to your doctor

You should check with your doctor about any specific concerns or recommendations they have in regards to your exercise program. Chances are your doctor will encourage you in your workout endeavors!

Photo: AdobeStock/nenetus
Photo: AdobeStock/nenetus

2. Pack your gear

Whether you are heading outside to workout, to the gym, or planning some killer push-ups on your living room floor, be sure to have a high carbohydrate snack nearby—probably a couple. But you already knew that!

Photo: AdobeStock/Jiri Hera
Photo: AdobeStock/Jiri Hera

3. Pace Yourself

Everyone’s body is different, so start slow and get used to how your body responds to different types of exercise. In order to build long-term adherence (and gain long-term benefits) you want to set small goals that give you a boost each time they get completed. Starting small will help ensure you don’t burn up all your motivation in the first few days.

You can definitely run a marathon if that sounds like your bag, and there are tons of great examples of athletes with diabetes. But it’s recommended that someone with diabetes start by exercising three to four times a week for 20 to 60 minutes at a low-to-moderate intensity. That’s a great start and you can work up from there.

Photo: AdobeStock/Kzenon
Photo: AdobeStock/Kzenon

4. Watch where you poke

It’s best not to inject insulin into the primary muscle group that you will be working because it will be absorbed more quickly there, increasing the risk of a hypo.

5. Crunch the numbers

If your glucose levels are below 100mg/dL you should have additional carbohydrates before beginning exercise. Ingesting 15 grams of carbohydrate is recommended, and if your blood glucose isn’t above 100mg/dL after 15 minutes, ingest more carbs. If your glucose level is at or above 300mg/dL with or without the presence of ketosis, or 250mg/dL and ketosis is present, you should wait to exercise until your levels are within a normal range. If you are exercising for a prolonged period of time, you should check your levels during exercise as well.

Photo: AdobeStock/Impact Photography
Photo: AdobeStock/Impact Photography

6. Schedule Wisely

Try not to schedule your workout when you know your insulin levels fluctuate the most. You know your body and when your levels are the most active—try to avoid exercising when you’re the most subject to fluctuations.

Photo: AdobeStock/MasterSergeant
Photo: AdobeStock/MasterSergeant

7. Hello Hydration

Proper hydration is important for every exerciser, but blood glucose is impacted by dehydration, so don’t let it happen to you! Remember, drinking only when you feel thirsty may not be enough.

8. Bring a Buddy

It’s safest to workout with someone else. Workout buddies are great, especially when you are getting used to your routine and learning how your body will respond to exercise. If you can’t find a buddy, group fitness classes are a great way to start (click here for reasons why they’re so great). Oh, and whether you’re alone or in a group, wear your medical ID bracelet.

Photo: AdobeStock/digitalskillet1
Photo: AdobeStock/digitalskillet1

9. Love those feet

Your feet are precious, so treat them right! Make sure you have dry, breathable socks (tips for choosing socks here) and supportive, well-fitting footwear. Rock those kicks!

Photo: AdobeStock/Maridav
Photo: AdobeStock/Maridav

10. Respect Yourself (In other words, know when to quit!)

Once you finally begin a workout, it can be defeating to have to stop. But listen to your body. It’s okay to feel challenged, to be breathing heavily, and to feel some burn in your muscles. But do you feel sharp pain? Like you can’t breathe? Dizzy? Those are good signs it’s time to call it quits, or at least switch to a lower-intensity activity. Exercise is a lifetstyle—no need to burn every calorie in one workout. It’s completely okay to pull back and regroup for another day.

Photo: AdobeStock/WavebreakmediaMicro
Photo: AdobeStock/WavebreakmediaMicro

So best of luck getting started! Exercise is a lifelong commitment with lifelong benefits. If for some reason you’re still not convinced, check out additional benefits of exercise by following the link below. Stay healthy, friends!

Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.

Support Research

Fund Diabetes research and care at The Diabetes Site for free!

Whizzco