Much Ado About Exercise

The best thing you can do for your diabetes is move!

with Amy Tenderich

straightup-hiresEditor's Note: While this columnist is no longer writing for and we have ceased to update the information contained herein, there is much to be read here that is still applicable to the lives of people with diabetes. If you wish to act on anything you learn here, be sure to consult your doctor first. Please enjoy the column!

November 2005 —Exercise, exercise, exercise -- that's all we ever hear. We know. We know! But really, you're thinking, I walk a little, so why does my doctor keep preaching sports, when I just don't like them. What IS all the fuss about?

Well, the more I look into it, the more I "get it." The simple and powerful reason for all the fuss around exercise with diabetes is this: Nothing goes further towards preventing blindness, kidney disease, liver failure, and all the other ugly complications that diabetes can bring on.

And on the brighter side, exercise makes you feel surprisingly good. Honest! What else gets you fresh air and a tight behind at the same time? Sure, I know that getting started can be grueling if you're not used to it. But once you've found a rhythm, you might be very surprised at how energizing exercise can be.

As a starting point, let's take a look at the Why's and How's of moving your body.

Why Should I Care?

I don't like to dwell on the negative, but here's what you need to know: Diabetic complications primarily stem from poor circulation. Foot problems, increased infections, eye damage, wounds that won't heal, heart disease… the blood just ain't flowing like it's supposed to.

This is because high blood glucose levels damage blood vessels. They make the walls thicker and less elastic, so the blood has a harder time passing through.

Second, people with diabetes tend to have higher fat levels in their blood, also caused by higher blood glucose. These fats or "lipids" clog and narrow the blood vessels. Sometimes they clog completely. This is what your doctor calls "atherosclerosis." Any blood vessel in your body can become narrow and clogged, and this can lead to a heart attack, angina (heart pain), stroke, or painful legs.

This is why exercise is so important! Not just on the face of it because you can take less insulin or skip your oral medications.

I even know one young diabetic who's doctor recently detected a dreaded "cotton wool spot" in the back of her eye. What did he prescribe? Cardio exercise three times a week! Her eye cleared up in a few months and she's now complication-free – and in great shape to boot.

The Good Stuff

On top of avoiding the bad stuff, exercise provides a lot of great "touchy-feely" benefits you'll love: it reduces stress, boosts your mood, improves your body image, promotes a wonderful sense of well-being, and can even improve your sex life! (Studies show that muscle strength and tone enhance sexual function, and the endorphins released in the brain may well work as an aphrodisiac.)

As one CDE puts it, exercise is "the most effective and portable stress-management tool on the market."

For people with diabetes, exercise also means lower medication and/or insulin needs and the opportunity for a little "wiggle room" in your meal plan, i.e. a few treats here and there are less problematic when you exercise regularly.

Exercise alone may not cause you to lose weight (you still need to reduce calorie intake for that), but it still gives you great health benefits and makes you feel good, no matter how much you weigh. As renown endocrinologist Dr. Anne Peters puts it: "A fit overweight person is much better off than an unfit overweight person."

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Last Modified Date: June 27, 2013

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