Exercise has long been recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle.
While some health recommendations and fads have come and gone, getting regular exercise is a health tip that’s here to stay.
The health benefits of regular physical activity are almost too numerous to begin to count, but it includes reduced risk of chronic disease, improved mental health, and increased longevity.
According to researchers at Harvard University, as little as 15 minutes of exercise each day can increase your lifespan by three years.
Exercise plays a large role in the management of diabetes as well.
If you have diabetes, you’re probably interested in knowing what you can do to manage your blood sugar and stay healthy. If you’ve ever wondered, “Does exercise lower blood sugar?”, then read on to get the full scoop.
Does exercise lower blood sugar?
During moderate physical activity such as walking, the muscles and organs like the heart and lungs take up glucose (sugar) to use as energy.
The body also stores extra sugar in the form of glycogen in the liver, which is important for keeping blood sugar levels from going low during periods of fasting, illness, and prolonged exercise.
Exercise also helps improve insulin sensitivity, which helps to lower blood sugar. Insulin is a hormone the pancreas makes that allows glucose to enter the cells from the bloodstream. Without enough insulin, glucose stays in the bloodstream and accumulates as high blood sugar.
Part of the cause of type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance, which means the body doesn’t respond to insulin the way it should. When glycogen stores are used up during exercise, the body will pull glucose from the bloodstream to help replenish its glycogen stores. This process helps improve insulin sensitivity, which helps lower blood sugar levels.
One session of exercise can lower blood sugar for up to 16 hours afterward. After around 90 minutes of intense physical activity, glycogen stores are usually depleted.
That’s why it’s important to eat carbohydrate-containing foods and drinks during prolonged exercise, and why there are aid stations with sports drinks and gels containing sugar during events like marathons.
During bouts of more intense exercise, more glycogen is depleted to provide energy. This means that some types of exercise can raise blood sugar temporarily.
Glycogen depletion improves insulin sensitivity, which is why blood sugar levels are usually lower after you complete exercise, even if it is slightly higher at the beginning.
Adrenaline and other stress hormones are secreted during the early phase of a workout, which can temporarily raise blood sugar.
Blood sugar levels often fall again after you complete exercise, so physical activity still positively impacts blood glucose levels.
Increased muscle mass
Regular exercise can build lean muscle mass, which can also help lower blood sugar. Muscle takes up extra glucose, so having more lean muscle mass can help promote healthy blood sugar levels even between exercise sessions by improving insulin sensitivity.
Helps promote weight loss
Being active regularly can promote a healthy weight. Losing 5-10% of your body weight can help improve blood sugars and can reduce the risk of prediabetes progressing to type 2 diabetes by almost 60%.
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Exercises you should try to control blood sugar
If you want to exercise to lower your blood sugar, then the most important exercise to try is one that you enjoy. Any type of physical activity that gets your heart rate up and strengthens your muscles is going to come with the benefits of lowering blood sugar.
Aerobic exercise means “with oxygen” and is often referred to as “cardio.” This results in an increased breathing rate to deliver oxygen to the cells of the muscles.
Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, running, swimming, bicycling, and cardio equipment like a rowing machine or elliptical trainer. Aerobic exercise also strengthens the heart muscle and improves cardiovascular health.
Low-impact exercises like walking and swimming are great for older people, those with joint pain, or those just starting an exercise routine. High-impact exercise like running can cause more wear and tear on the joints and increase the risk of injury, especially if you’re not a conditioned runner or have previous injuries.
Weight lifting and resistance training are anaerobic exercises and are also beneficial for improving blood sugar control. Muscles take up glucose for fuel, which helps reduce blood glucose levels.
People with more muscle mass burn more calories at rest, which can also help with weight management. You don’t have to have access to a gym to build muscle.
Bodyweight exercises like lunges, squats, pushups, and tricep dips can all help to build muscle. Resistance bands are another tool you can utilize at home to help with strength training, as well as a set of lighter dumbbells (five to ten pounds each).
Exercise tips for diabetics
Most forms of exercise are safe for people with diabetes. However, you should always check with your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise routine. This is especially true if you have other health conditions such as high blood pressure or heart issues.
Keep carbs on hand
If you take insulin to manage your diabetes, you’re at a greater risk of developing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Keep easy forms of carbs on hand, such as exercise gels, dried fruit, or even glucose tabs.
Time exercise with meals
Blood sugar levels usually peak around 90 minutes after eating. According to a study, starting exercise around 30 minutes after a meal is optimal to help curb the blood sugar spike after eating.
Remember your motivation
Managing diabetes is a life-long journey. If you’re making an effort to include physical activity in your routine, there’s probably something motivating you, whether it’s wanting to stay mobile to play with grandchildren or to reduce your risk of diabetes complications.
Think about your primary motivator (or motivators!) and remember them when you feel discouraged or simply don’t want to keep at it.
Mix it up
Doing the same thing can get mundane and make exercise less enjoyable. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re probably not going to stick with it. Consider exercising in a group setting, with a friend, or changing the scenery.
If you usually go for a walk around your neighborhood, try going to a nearby trail or choose a different neighborhood to take in new sights. If you want something to motivate you, consider signing up for races or events. 5k run/walks are a popular event held in most areas and can be motivating to train for.
Adjust insulin as needed
Your healthcare provider can help you adjust your insulin dosages if you’re experiencing high or low blood sugar from exercise.
When to monitor blood sugar
If you have type 1 diabetes, you should consider checking your blood sugar before exercise. If your blood sugar level is very high, it’s recommended to hold off on exercise until you get it under better control.
The reason is that blood sugar levels rise when you start exercising. And this can make already high blood sugar levels worse. If your blood glucose is above 240 mg/dL, you should avoid exercise and check for ketones. Ketones signify a potentially dangerous complication called diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA.
For those with a tendency to have low blood sugar, you should also check blood glucose levels before exercising. If your blood sugar is low before beginning exercise, you might want to hold off and eat some carbohydrates to bring it up before you start exercising.
This is especially important for those taking blood sugar-lowering medications, especially insulin. There is usually less need for people with type 2 diabetes to check blood sugar levels before exercise. However, it doesn’t hurt to check, especially for those with type 2 diabetes on insulin.
Checking blood sugar after exercising can give you insight as to how different activities impact your blood sugar. For example, you might learn that walking lowers your blood sugar quickly, but lifting weights takes longer to show a drop in blood sugar.
You should always check your blood sugar if you’re experiencing signs of hypoglycemia, such as dizziness, nausea, sweating, and hunger.
Exercise has an overall positive impact by helping to reduce blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity.
Monitoring blood sugar levels can help you learn more about how different types of exercise impact your blood sugar and help promote healthy blood sugar levels.