Pillar 3: Physical Activity

Regular physical activity is a key component of any healthy routine, whether you have diabetes or not. Just a few of the well-known health benefits include, weight loss, improved energy, and enhanced mood.

The specific benefits of exercise for diabetics

Regular exercise has some very specific benefits for those with diabetes – improved insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control. The more you move your body, the more muscle mass you can build and the more body fat you will burn. By increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat, your cells become more sensitive to insulin and your muscles will use glucose better, ensuring proper blood sugar balance. Exercise also improves heart health, a critical factor for diabetics.

Exercise: the key to weight management

Although having a healthy body weight can help stabilize blood sugar, weight loss can be especially challenging for diabetics. When you reduce the number of calories you eat, your body senses this as a risk of famine. In defence, your body slows your metabolism and makes you tired. This is an attempt to stop all non-essential activity and preserve weight. You will also start to burn muscle rather than fat, as muscle is a richer source of fuel. The good news is that exercise can actually overcome all of these defences, making weight loss easier. When you exercise, you will naturally boost your metabolism, blunt fatigue and start burning fat instead of muscle (your body can’t burn muscle it needs to work out).

How much exercise do I need?

Current guidelines suggest the following goals:

Aerobic Activity:

  • 150 minutes/week of moderate intensity activity.
  • Spread over 3 days per week, with no more than 2 consecutive days without activity.
  • You can accumulate exercise in small bouts of 10–15 minutes several times per day with the same benefit as a longer single bout of exercise. This is good if you are just starting out.

Tip: Walking briskly for 15–40 minutes following a meal is one of the easiest ways to start incorporating exercise. It also helps lower blood pressure and after-meal blood sugar spikes.

Resistance Training (Weight Lifting):

  • As long as it is safe, diabetics are encouraged to perform resistance training 2–3 times per week.

Safety first!

As physical activity and weight loss can improve blood glucose control, it is important for those with diabetes to monitor their blood sugar levels closely when following a new exercise regime. Adjustments to medications may be required. If you are just beginning to exercise, you may also want to seek guidance from a qualified health and/or exercise professional.

Tip: Measure your blood sugar levels before and after exercise to see how your blood sugar may change.

Regular exercise along with modest weight loss has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes by as much as 58%.  With such powerful effects, it is clear that physical activity, along with nutrition and stress management, is key to diabetes management.