Whether you have been told your blood sugars are too high or that you have diabetes, you’ve probably heard the advice to exercise regularly. That is easier said than done. Even if you know it is important, knowing what to do, how much is enough, and staying motivated to do it regularly is no easy task. This article gives you information about exercising for better blood sugar control* in a way that makes staying motivated easier.
Exercising regularly for blood sugar control starts with mindset
As we will discuss, exercise has amazing benefits for blood sugar control, but if you are not doing it regularly, it does not work. The place to start is how you are thinking about exercise and diabetes. Take a moment to notice what comes to mind when you think about exercising. You may be up against a family history of diabetes, or have other health conditions, or a long history of struggle with making exercise a habit. Many factors can lead to a mindset that you can’t exercise or that you don’t have time or energy. Concerns about getting injured or having a heart attack may also play a role in putting it off. This article is written to help you strengthen the kind of mindset about exercising for blood sugar control that has been shown to lead to lasting motivation. If exercising regularly has been a struggle, let’s think about exercising for blood sugar control in a whole new way.
How exercise helps manage high blood sugars
Why blood glucose matters
Glucose is one of the important fuels for the cells in your body. When you eat, your body has a management system to turn the food you eat into glucose for your body’s cells to do their job. It’s essential that glucose is readily available for use when you need it. It sends glucose through your blood system, giving some to cells to be used now and uses insulin to store the rest in muscle cells and in the liver for use later.
This system keeps sugars from hanging out in the blood when they are not needed. That’s pretty important because when sugar gets wet, it gets sticky. When you have too much sugar in your blood, that ‘sticky’ substance travels to every corner of your body, sticking to the lining of blood vessels. This is especially hazardous for the smaller vessels of the eyes, nervous system, and organs like kidneys and is the main reason diabetes can lead to other medical conditions.
Why movement matters
The movement system is meant to be the main system for keeping blood sugar from getting too high. The insulin system is designed to be your backup system, for use when you are not moving. Diabetes develops when the insulin system of glucose management breaks down and the sugar hangs out in the blood rather than being used or stored. It is caused by a combination of factors that reduce your body’s ability to make and use insulin well. This leads to more glucose in the blood than needed.
Moving your body helps to keep sugars from building up in the blood because it moves the sugar into cells to be used for energy. Two important things happen when you move that help your body manage blood sugars:
- Your body uses the sugar in your blood to help fuel moving muscles. During exercise your body is using up those extra sugars in your blood, helping you lower blood sugars.
- Your body is able to use its own insulin more efficiently. After exercise, your body is more sensitive to its own insulin, making this backup system work better for hours after exercise.
When you don’t move, your body needs to use the backup (insulin) system to bring sugar into cells to be stored as fat. Over time your backup (insulin) system gets overused and can ‘wear out’, causing the need for extra insulin from medications.
When you have type II diabetes, your body is resistant to insulin, causing sugar and insulin build up in your blood. When you move your body, you activate the main natural system for lowering your blood sugar. Exercise, then, temporarily reverses the cause of type II diabetes.
Why stress matters
There are two main reasons why stress matters when you have diabetes.
First, stress raises blood sugars because stress prepares your body for movement, and movement needs sugars to fuel cells. However, many of our stressors today do not require movement to take care of them as they did for our ancestors fighting or running away from threats to their safety. If you move but if that movement is stressful, your movement system for lowering blood sugar is counteracted by the stress system that raises it.
Second, stress puts your brain in a state where it is searching for ‘feel good’ brain chemicals. For example, when you are feeling bored, lonely, or fatigued, your brain is often likely to look for food or alcohol for comfort, often called ‘stress eating’. Carbohydrates and fats raise these ‘feel better’ chemicals, and your brain knows it. Exercise raises these feel good brain chemicals as well, but in a more natural balanced way that is less addictive for your brain. Exercising regularly keeps your levels of these brain chemicals higher so comfort foods are less likely to be a source of higher blood sugars.
There’s a problem, though, when getting enough exercise is another stressor, rather than a resource for reducing stress. This is where adding mindfulness to exercise comes in.
Mindfulness, blood sugars, and motivation to exercise
Since stress is strongly connected with high blood sugars, combining mindfulness with exercise elevates its ability to help with diabetes by giving you a tool for restoring calm. Mindfulness allows you to tap into the subtle cues your body sends that your blood sugar is rising too high. It also helps you stay aware when your mindset about exercise is making it more stress-producing rather than stress-reducing. Using mindfulness with exercise allows you to pay attention, to listen to and trust your body, which improves your ability to exercise at the just-right level to strengthen your body while helping it regulate your blood sugars.
How to exercise regularly for blood sugar control
When blood sugar is measured, it gives a snapshot of how your body is doing with moving sugars into your cells to be stored or used. An A1C blood test measures your average blood sugar levels over the past three months, giving an even better understanding of how all the things you are doing to control blood sugar are working to keep sugars from building up in your blood in as many moments in your day as possible.
The three types of exercise and how they each help with diabetes
Exercise is really three medications in one when it comes to helping you with diabetes. Each type of exercise has unique ways of helping your blood sugars. Knowing how to use them and the skill of mindfulness will give you a greater sense of control over your blood sugars, and confidence you can use exercise to help you feel and function the best you can every day.
Strength: Muscles are cells in your body that use a large amount of your blood sugars. Muscle cells are organized into fibers. Those fibers are used on an as-needed basis. The more force you need from muscles, the more fibers are called upon to be used for that movement.
When you do it well, strength training is the type of exercise that uses the greatest proportion of your muscle fibers. Not only does that use more blood sugars, but those fibers continue to use more blood glucose as they recover for the next 24-48 hours after one single bout of strength training. Think of strength training as your long-acting blood glucose medication, with amazing side effects.
Stamina: When you do stamina-building exercise, your muscles are fueled by glucose stored in both your blood and in your muscles, thus lowering blood sugars. At the same time, your body also becomes more sensitive to its own insulin, temporarily reversing the cause of type two diabetes. With consistency, you gain more stamina and that means everyday activities are easier for your body, making them less stressful and increasing your ability to move more to keep blood sugars under control. You are also increasing your energy, lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reducing your overall risk of heart disease as well as cancer and dementia that are associated with diabetes.
Mobility: What many people don’t know is that stretching causes a muscle contraction and uses blood sugars too. Since stretching works great as a mindful movement break, it is a great way to keep stress from building up while helping your muscles get glucose in small doses out of your blood. Building balance reduces the constant worry about falling. When you know how to move smart, you can use mobility exercises as mindful movement breaks in your day so you can lower stress levels before they build up and raise blood sugars. The bonus is you have a way to feel better in your body and calmer in your mind through your day.
When you know how to move smart, keeping a balance between these three types of exercise, your risk of injury is reduced and your chances of feeling better from day one of exercise rises. Avoiding injury and pain with exercise will help you do it more regularly so you get all these great benefits with more consistency. That means knowing how to stay motivated for exercise is as important as knowing what to do.
Exercise, when done in a way that lowers stress and keeps you feeling your best each day activates your body’s natural blood sugar management systems and keeps you motivated to exercise regularly. Exercise becomes a tremendous resource for being in better control of your blood sugars, easing worries about the effects of diabetes on your health and well-being.
*Important Note: This article provides general information about exercising with diabetes. The specifics about how much is enough and the timing of exercise when you have diabetes is very individual.
Exercising WELL is the way to have a clinical exercise physiologist as part of your diabetes care team. Along with your health care providers, I can help you decide the way to use exercise to help control blood sugars. Click the button below to learn more about the Exercising WELL online program and coaching. If you have specific questions, please feel free to contact me.
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