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Starting Exercise After a Diabetes Diagnosis

This article was contributed and written by Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Alison Penington from Diabetes South Australia.

How to start exercising after a diabetes diagnosis

Whether you have been diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, it can often be an overwhelming adjustment to your life and cause multiple disruptions to your day-to-day activities.

With a great deal of evidence supporting exercise for the treatment and management of higher blood glucose levels (BGLs) it can be daunting to think about how to start exercising after your diagnosis.

Exercise has many benefits for everyone as it forces multiple body systems to work together to improve your health. In diabetes specifically, exercise can help to:

  • Improve insulin sensitivity
  • Reduce cardiovascular risk factors
  • Lower blood glucose levels (BGLs)
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Reduce body fat
  • Improve quality of life

With all these benefits and more, it is imperative that those who are at-risk of getting diabetes and those that have been diagnosed with diabetes include exercise in their lifestyle.

There are many different types of exercise and different workout options. Exercise is not a one-size-fits all activity, which is great news for those with diabetes! By breaking it down and starting simple, you’re more likely to avoid injury, gain confidence and receive long-term health benefits.

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FOUR MAIN TYPES OF EXERCISE:

Cardiovascular Endurance or Aerobic:

  • This is exercise that usually targets the health of your heart, lungs and circulatory system.
  • It can be performed in bouts – e.g. 3 x 10 minutes (especially if you are just starting out) or for at least 30 minutes ongoing.
  • Should be done at a moderate to high intensity.
  • Activity examples: swimming, running, dancing or cycling. 

Flexibility:

  • Flexibility exercises target the range of motion of the muscle and connective tissues around a joint or group of joints.
  • Flexibility can help to reduce your risk of injury, increase blood flow to your muscles for repair and improve your range of movements (which can help all your other exercises!)
  • This usually includes stretching to improve flexibility which keeps your joints mobile and tendons/muscles healthy.
  • Activity examples: yoga, Pilates or general stretching.

Balance:

  • Balance training is important for all ages because it helps to:
    • Improve your proprioception (awareness of your body in space).
    • Increase your reaction time and help your body respond quicker to unpredicted demands.
    • Avoid injuries from a fall.
    • Improve muscular strength and joint support.
    • Improve your coordination.
  • Activity examples: yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi. 

Strength:

  • Strength training or ‘resistance training’ is especially important to consider in your exercise regime.
  • It involves using resistance such as weights or other equipment or even your own body weight to increase muscle strength and endurance.
  • Strength training is a useful tool to improve and maintain muscle, bone and joint health.
  • When muscles undergo external load (the weight) or different contractions, they pull on their tendons and ligaments which in turn pulls on the bones and sends signals to the body to increase bone strength.
  • By adding load to exercise it makes everyday activities feel easier and more achievable.
  • Activity examples: weightlifting, Pilates, bodyweight exercises (e.g. squats, sit ups, etc.)

PREPARING TO EXERCISE WITH DIABETES

It is important to ensure that you are both physically and mentally prepared for exercise. Exercise safety is highly important for everyone, but particularly those that are living with chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Physically, that means not going beyond what you are capable of doing, especially if you are just starting out.

Mentally, it means that you are educated about your BGLs prior to exercise and understand your exercise plan so that you set yourself up for success. When people are living with diabetes, and especially those that are using medication to help support the management of BGLs, it is important to understand the interaction between blood glucose and exercise. This is because exercise can have different impacts on your BGLs and can increase the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood glucose levels).

Pre-exercise tips and strategies when living with diabetes:

  • Ensure you have been cleared medically for exercise by a doctor or allied health professional.
  • Ensure you are well hydrated.
  • Ensure you have checked your BGL’s and are within the safe exercise range (5.5 – 15 mmol/L) and that you are feeling well.
  • If you are exercising for over 30 minutes, make sure you re-check your BGLs during exercise.
  • Ensure you have a ‘hypo’ emergency kit with you (including fast acting carbohydrate snacks such as jellybeans, fruit juice or glucose chews).
  • Speak to an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) to find out more information about what the best exercise for you and your unique history would be.
  • Do not exercise if you have had hypoglycaemia levels in the past 24 hours that required assistance to treat.
  • Make necessary insulin adjustments pre/post exercise
  • Have a snack after exercising to reduce your risk of hypoglycaemia.

Who to turn to for help exercising with diabetes

It is always good to start with a medical clearance from your doctor and a conversation with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

Accredited Exercise Physiologists (AEPs) are exercise professionals who are trained to help clients become more active and help them manage their diabetes better with exercise.  You can get a simple referral from your GP to an AEP in your area to get started and by doing this, you can also get Medicare rebates for seeing an AEP.

Find your local exercise professional today.

Written by Alison Penington, Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) and Accredited Exercise Scientist (AES), in collaboration with Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA). 

Alison is an AEP at Diabetes South Australia (SA). Diabetes SA is a not-for-profit organization based in Adelaide. Their mission is to educate, advocate, support and fund research to provide better outcomes for people living with diabetes within South Australia.