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Insulin and Exercise - Tips for Staying Active and Safe with Diabetes

Engaging in physical activity/exercise plays an important role in managing overall health and diabetes.

Physical activity:

  • Helps keep blood sugar (blood glucose), blood pressure, and cholesterol levels on target
  • Lowers your risk for heart disease and stroke
  • Relieves stress
  • Helps insulin work better – improves insulin sensitivity
  • Strengthens your heart, muscles and bones
  • Improves your blood circulation and tones your muscles
  • Keeps your body and your joints flexible

American Diabetes Association (ADA) guidelines for both aerobic and resistance exercises include:

  • 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise OR 90 minutes per week of vigorous intensity exercise
  • Resistance exercise 3 times per week, targeting all major muscle groups

A complete physical activity routine should include 3 different kinds of activities:

  • Activity – walking, using the stairs, moving around – throughout the day
  • Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming or dancing for example
  • Strength training, such as lifting light weights

Moderate exercise - like walking or swimming - gets your heart rate up and causes your muscles to use more glucose. Exercise will lower glucose values, however, when and how much glucose values drop, depends on the type and intensity of exercise. Therefore it is important to discuss beginning or changing an exercise routine with your provider. The benefits of exercise can last hours and consistent exercise over time can make the insulin in your body work better.

Prolonged exercise will lower blood sugar levels, sometimes to dangerously low levels. According to the American Diabetes Association, people with Type 1 diabetes are at greatest risk of hypoglycemia - often called low blood sugar - that can cause heart palpitations, sweating, anxiety, confusion, seizures, and loss of consciousness if not treated quickly.

To prevent exercise-related hypoglycemia, follow these tips:

  • Check your blood sugar before and immediately after exercise.
  • Avoid alcohol prior to or immediately after exercise.
  • Hot tubs, saunas, and steam rooms should be avoided directly after exercise because they keep your heart rate up longer.
  • Limit exercise sessions to one or two per day. More sessions increase the likelihood of a blood sugar drop.

Routine exercise/physical activity helps regulate blood glucose levels and improves overall health. Persons with diabetes should pay close attention to how their blood sugar responds to exercise and make appropriate changes to their routine as needed to prevent hypoglycemia. Developing and maintaining positive lifestyle changes, such as routine physical activity, are paramount to not only preventing the development of diabetes, but also improving overall health when living with diabetes.

Credit to American Diabetes Association (ADA)

(Sara Wiedrich, FNP-C, CDE and Amy Samples, PA-C are Diabetes Management Specialists at CHI St. Alexius Health Heart and Lung Clinic.)