Type 1 Diabetes and Exercise

Why You Should Stay Fit and What Exercises to Do

Exercise is an absolutely vital part of type 1 diabetes treatment. Staying fit and active throughout your life has many benefits, but the biggest one for people with diabetes is this: it helps you control diabetes and prevent long-term complications.

Exercise makes it easier to control your blood glucose (blood sugar) level. Exercise benefits people with type 1 because it increases your insulin sensitivity. In other words, after exercise, your body doesn't need as much insulin to process carbohydrates.

If your child has type 1 diabetes, making sure he or she gets enough exercise is not only a great way to help manage his or her diabetes but also instill healthy habits from an early age. To learn more about how to safely incorporate exercise into your child's routine, read our article about physical activity for children with type 1 diabetes.

Exercise can also help people with type 1 diabetes avoid long-term complications, especially heart problems. As you can read about this in our article on type 1 diabetes complications, people with diabetes are susceptible to developing blocked arteries (arteriosclerosis), which can lead to a heart attack. Exercise helps keep your heart healthy and strong. Plus, exercise helps you maintain good cholesterol—and that helps you avoid arteriosclerosis.

Additionally, there are all the traditional benefits of exercise:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better control of weight
  • Leaner, stronger muscles
  • Stronger bones
  • More energy

One person who certainly understands the benefits of exercise in managing type 1 diabetes is Jay Cutler, quarterback for the Chicago Bears. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2008, but the disease hasn't interfered with his football career. To learn more, read our article about Jay Cutler's experience with type 1 diabetes

A Few Notes Before You Begin Exercising
If you don't currently exercise (or if your child isn't as active as he or she should be), talk to your doctor before starting. Especially if you're an adult with type 1 diabetes, you should have a full physical to make sure you're ready to be more active.

Your doctor will be able to check your heart health, which is particularly important if you already have blocked arteries or high blood pressure. You also need to take into consideration any other diabetes-related complications—retinopathy or neuropathy, for example. As you begin an exercise program, your doctor can help you figure out the best exercise program that allows you to get in shape but doesn't push your body too far.

Before you begin exercising, you need to set realistic goals. If you haven't exercised much recently, you aren't going to jump into running a marathon. In fact, you aren't even going to jump into running a 5k.

Allow yourself some time to build up to a steady, challenging exercise routine. It is okay to slowly increase your physical activity—it's better for your body in the long run.

Finally, talk to your doctor and/or Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) about adjusting your (or your child's) insulin around exercise. You don't want to become hypoglycemic during a work-out, so you'll need to do some planning.

A Few Exercise Suggestions
There are three main kinds of exercise—aerobic, strength training, and flexibility work. You should aim to have a good balance of all three.

Aerobic Exercises
Aerobic exercises include:

  • Walking
  • Jogging/Running
  • Tennis
  • Basketball
  • Swimming
  • Biking

You should aim to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week. In fact, the American Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise a week, which works out to 30 minutes five days a week. If you think that you can't find 30 minutes, you can break up the exercise into chunks—10 minutes here and there.

Also, stretch your creativity when it comes to fitting in exercise. Take a walk at lunch, or get the whole family out after dinner for a game of basketball.

Strength Training
Strength training gives you lean, efficient muscles, and it also helps you maintain strong, healthy bones.

Weight training is one of the most used strength training techniques, although you can also use your own body weight to build up strength—think of pull-ups and push-ups.

When you're starting a weight training program, make sure you know how to use all the equipment. Ask the staff at your gym how you should properly use the weights, or consider getting a personal trainer to learn the best exercises for you.

Lifting weights for 20-30 minutes two or three times a week is sufficient to get the full benefits of strength training.

If you are unable to exercise in a gym, there are items at home that can be used as weights. Canned goods or even a 5 lb bag of flour can be used for strength training.

Flexibility Training
With flexibility training, you'll improve how well your muscles and joints work. Stretching before and after exercise (especially after exercise) reduces muscle soreness and actually relaxes your muscles.

Stick with Your Exercise Plan
Make a commitment to exercise and make it a priority. Your long-term health depends on it, so as tough as it may be to find time or to motivate yourself to exercise, keep being active.

One of the best ways to make sure you stick with an exercise plan is to mix it up—and do things that you really enjoy. If there's a sport that you enjoy, try joining a league. If you like running, sign up for races to provide a challenge and a goal. Exercise with friends; knowing that someone else will be there with you makes it easier to want to exercise.

Exercise and physical activity are necessary parts of your life when you have type 1 diabetes—just like watching what you eat and taking insulin. Exercise can help you avoid serious long-term complications of diabetes.