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The Best Exercises If You Have Diabetes

Everyone can benefit from regular exercise. However, for individuals with diabetes, a fitness routine is a key component of the treatment plan, along with diet and medication. 

The question is: what are the best exercises if you have diabetes? Are some exercises better than others to keep the blood sugar levels under control? 

The many benefits of exercise

In addition to promoting healthy glucose levels and insulin sensitivity, exercise fights fatigue, improves mood, supports healthy blood pressure and heart function. Exercise helps relieve stress and helps you sleep better.  Along with a healthy diet, exercise is a powerful tool to maintain optimal health. Research studies found that a variety of exercises provide health benefits- from low impact to moderate, aerobic exercise and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Resistance training with weights is also a good choice. More importantly than trying to find “the best” workout to manage diabetes, ask yourself: which exercise do I enjoy the most? Because consistency is the key. Sporadic workouts offer very few benefits. Many people sign up for a gym membership at the beginning of the year, but not everyone will stick to a routine long term. Regular exercise means working out most days of the week and enjoying those workouts. The best way to find your favorite workout is to try a few and see which one makes you feel the best. 

Go for a walk 

One of the easiest ways to incorporate exercise into the daily routine is to exercise outdoors. It is free, too. Aim for a 30-60 minute walk, 3 to 4 times a week. Once you get used to the routine, you can get started counting your steps and tracking the calories burnt. A 30-minute walk in nature (i.e. in a park) helps improve blood sugar levels and supports heart health by improving circulation, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. In addition, walking in nature is associated with reduced inflammation, enhanced immune function, better mood, memory, and cognition, and increased productivity. Even shorter, 5 minutes walk can help boost self-esteem and relaxation, promoting a sense of physical and emotional well-being.  If you need additional motivation to start walking in the park, team up with your partner or a friend to share this activity. You can always add more steps by parking far away from a store, so you have to walk more. Another option is to take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible. 

Aerobic exercise 

Based on a review of research from Mayo Clinic, aerobic exercise reduces the risk of many chronic illnesses from type 2 diabetes to high blood pressure, strokes, and certain types of cancer. Aerobic exercise improves heart and lung function, keeps the bones and muscles strong,  increases energy levels, and reduces fatigue. The immune system function also improves, leading to a reduced risk of viral infections. Aerobic exercises have well-documented antianxiety and antidepressant effects, promoting restful sleep. Finally, regular aerobic exercise helps individuals stay active and independent as they age, by reducing the risk of falls and injuries and may even promote longevity.  

Which workouts are considered “aerobic” exercises? Switching from walking slowly to brisk walks for 30 minutes is an example of aerobic exercise. Other aerobic exercises are dancing, swimming, jogging, elliptical or bicycle training, and climbing the stairs. 

For those looking for a more challenging workout, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) could be an option. Also known as “super cardio” workouts, HIIT can be as effective as aerobic exercises, yet they require less time. A HIIT session can be completed in as little as 20 minutes. 

Resistance training 

Resistance training helps improve glycemic control and insulin sensitivity, in a similar fashion to aerobic exercise. This form of training improves lean mass and bone density and decreases abdominal fat. Adults lose about 5-7 pounds of muscle mass every decade after the age of 20, and muscle mass correlates with insulin sensitivity. Strength training is superior to other forms of training in preventing muscle loss. Resistance training improves strength and flexibility, reduces high blood pressure, helps fight stress and anxiety, is heart-healthy, and boosts self-esteem and self-confidence. Pain associated with arthritis or fibromyalgia can also improve with this form of exercise. Resistance training is usually performed with free weights or machines, but using the bodyweight is also an option. Aim for a 45-minute session 2 times a week,  to target various muscle groups.

Alternating weight training with aerobic exercises could make a great diabetes-friendly fitness plan. There should be at least one day off between two resistance training workouts. One or two recovery days a week allow the body to recover and rejuvenate. Still, some people enjoy some light stretching during the recovery days. Staying active is one of the best investments in your physical and emotional health.

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