Exercise is integral to our health and wellbeing, but for people with diabetes, it’s a game changer.
What do we mean by exercise?
In short, moving. Move your body to a level of intensity that leaves you out of breath. This is, of course, subjective, but that's why it works. Walking, jogging, running, weight lifting, pilates, yoga, any sport that requires physical exertion, even cleaning or mowing the lawn. It will all help. Do it by yourself or in a group, whatever makes you comfortable.
When you exercise your body increases its blood flow to your brain and around your body to its muscles. When you use these muscles during exercise they tear, and when they repair, they grow. You become stronger, fitter and are able to perform even simple physical tasks with more ease (like carrying shopping). This is great for your self confidence, but it will also positively impact all other parts of your body like blood pressure and heart rate.
Why is it so important for Diabetics?
When you exercise, it increases your sensitivity to insulin. This means that you will need less insulin to cover you over the day. It will also help to balance your blood sugar levels throughout the day, providing you don’t eat large amounts of carbohydrates as well (to help with cutting your carbs, see our diet page here).
This is obviously great news. We all want to have consistent blood sugars day in day out but it’s actually much, much more than this.
As stated above, exercise will boost your confidence, make all physical tasks easier, improve oxygen flow to your brain, improve cardiovascular ability, improve your hearts' ability to pump blood around the body, decrease cholesterol, decrease the probability of cardiovascular disease and many many more. It’ll even help make clothes fit that bit better. But when you have T1D you are also tackling major emotional stresses, sometimes daily.
Exercise releases endorphins, and these make you feel better. Your emotional health is of equal importance to your physical health. EQUAL IMPORTANCE! Make no bones about it… if you don’t take care of your mental health, having a six pack won’t make any difference. But we’ll go into that more under the mental health page.
Weight Training or Cardiovascular Exercise
To clarify; weight training (anaerobic) is when you use your body to move various weights. Typically in a gym with both machine and free weights. This is primarily geared to increase strength and muscle. Examples of weight training are bench press, squats, bicep curls and leg press.
It is very important to understand that weight training is for everyone. Not just young men with a vanity complex. We all need to work to sustain our muscle mass throughout our lives as this depletes as we get older.
Cardiovascular training (aerobic) is exercise whereby you increase your heart rate over a prolonged period of time. Say 30 minutes plus. Examples of this are Running, Biking and Swimming. Both of these types of exercise need to be adopted when you have diabetes.
Weight training will increase muscle mass which will pay dividends as you age. It will also improve bone density (very important for post-menopausal women).
Cardiovascular exercise will improve your bodies ability to transfer oxygen around the body. Improve heart and lung health, and decrease your blood glucose levels, which means you will require less insulin.
As an added extra positive; weight training changes your body shape to a more lean physique which helps with how clothing fits and feels. It assists with posture as well, as you strengthen major muscles groups which help to essentially hold and support your body. This can have dramatically positive effects if you suffer with any kind of back condition.
Are there any golden rules?
Factors to consider
long and low - short and high
Low intensity over a longer period will drop your glucose levels. High intensity over a shorter period will increase your glucose levels initially and then drop them later on. Both will result in a more balanced BGL over a given day.
check and check again
Monitor your BGL throughout any prolonged exercise. If you are casually running 10km, you will inevitably go low. You will need to ensure you have the appropriate remedy when this happens (glucose tablets etc)
Be consistent - let exercise become part of your daily routine. Start slow and steady and set yourself small goals. We’re not talking about being a gym junkie or running marathons, but your body needs to move regularly.
keep clear of carbs
Don’t fall into the trap of increasing carbohydrate consumption because you’re exercising more. You don’t need carbs to work out. They will only make balancing your BGL more difficult.
Stick with it.
Everyone goes through an initial period of pain when they begin to increase their strength and endurance. This will get easier but you will also notice that you’ll enjoy it more and more as you progress. Your body will get leaner, stronger, fitter and better at metabolising food and insulin.
Always be prepared.
Ensure you always have sweets or glucose tablets on you when exercising. If you're enjoying outdoor activities, make sure there are sweets stashed in every nook and cranny. Being stuck without hypo treatment is not worth the risk.
Consistency is key
Be the person where your friends expect you to be out exercising.
"Hey, where's Jack? oh, he's probably out sky diving or paddle boarding."
Make it such an integral part of your life that you feel jittery if you're not moving. This may sound extreme, but it really isn't. The benefits will amaze you and your doctors.
So how do you do it? By being stubborn.
It doesn't have to be 5am jogs or open water swimming races, but when you start to exercise on a daily basis your blood sugars will balance out beyond anything you've seen. The most important factor here is to be consistent.
As we must test on ourselves constantly, we gain great insight into what impacts our blood sugars. No amount of research or doctors guidance can dispute with pricking our finger at key times of the day, like during certain events like exercising or eating. Therefore, we must have confidence in our ability to read our body and analyse trends.
"I've noticed that when I exercise once or twice in a week but then have 4 or 5 days off, my blood sugars are nowhere near as balanced as when I train 3 or 4 days in a row. How do I know?
Overnight blood sugars.
After a few days in the gym or out running, my blood sugars overnight are a straight line. They don't move more than 0.5 mmol whilst asleep. This is in stark contrast to when I haven't exercised and I wake to a picture of a rollercoaster on my monitor."
Exercise also has a big impact on your quality of sleep and this will contribute significantly to your blood sugars overnight.
Moral of the story
It's not about being an Olympian or pushing yourself to the limits of physical perfection. It's about doing what your body was built to do. It's about being outdoors, exploring, having an adventure, seeing new things, testing yourself, learning, and growing.
There will always be time to 'Netflix and chill', but one day.. just maybe.. you'll look back at your life before exercise and shake your head.
What was I thinking?