Diabetes and Exercise: 10 Science-Backed Reasons to Start Working Out

Changing your diet isn’t the only way to achieve a healthy lifestyle with diabetes. Here's how exercise can help you fight fat and lower your blood sugar.

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1. Reach your weight loss goal faster. Study after study shows that regular physical activity can help you to burn more calories, torch more body fat (especially belly fat), reduce your blood sugar levels, and build more sexy, sugar-sipping muscle. In a 2011 study from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, women who followed a healthy, reduced-calorie diet and exercised regularly lost an average of 19.8 pounds in a year. In contrast, those who only exercised lost an average of 4.4 pounds and those who only dieted lost 15.8 pounds. (Watch out for these diabetes symptoms that people typically miss.)

2. Maintain that goal for life. Exercise also helps you keep weight off, which is a major challenge once you’ve lost those extra pounds. In one 2010 study from the Arizona Cancer Center, women who did muscle-building moves on a regular basis were 22 percent less likely to put on pounds and body fat than women who didn’t strength train. (We’ve got more tips on working out with diabetes here.)

3. Manage blood sugar more easily. Think of activity as a sponge that helps soak up excess sugar that’s circulating around your system. When muscles contract, your body sends out armies of sugar-moving proteins called GLUT-4 transporters that carry sugar molecules from your bloodstream into your cells. This process doesn’t rely on insulin (the hormone that tells cells to let blood sugar in). And the benefits can last for hours after your activity ends. End result: better blood sugar control. In one amazing 2012 study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, published in the journal Diabetes Care, people with diabetes who exercised at a moderate pace for a half-hour just three or four days a week slashed their exposure to the damaging effects of high blood sugar. The researchers found that while non-exercisers’ blood sugar levels spiked to high levels nearly eight hours each day, exercisers’ blood sugar levels stayed in a healthy range almost three hours longer every day. This difference lowered their long-term risk for diabetes-related complications like nerve damage, vision loss, and kidney problems.

4. Reduce insulin resistance. Exercise makes your cells more likely to obey insulin’s “Hey, open up and let the blood sugar in!” messages more readily. This benefit kicks in after just a week of exercise. Insulin resistance fell by 30 percent in one 2007 Tufts University study.

5. Drop cortisol levels. High levels of this stress hormone trigger inflammation and worsen blood sugar control. Exercise helps reduce the emotional stress that can lead to these chronically high cortisol levels. Almost any form of exercise or physical activity can be a natural stress-buster.

6. Build calorie-hungry muscle. Muscle draws sugar and fatty acids from your bloodstream, burning them for energy around the clock. There’s some disagreement over exactly how many calories each pound of muscle burns. Some say only about 5 calories a day, but others estimate closer to 50. Either way, that’s much more than your fat stores, which burn few calories at all. Trouble is, we start losing some of our muscle mass every decade beginning in our mid-thirties. With less muscle on board to burn calories, losing weight and keeping it off can be more difficult—another reason to build muscle with strength training.

7. Melt more belly fat. In a 2006 Johns Hopkins University study, 104 women and men who walked on a treadmill or rode exercise bikes three days a week and did a strength-training routine lost 18 percent of their belly fat. This combination beats walking alone. In a 2010 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, women who walked and performed a simple strength-training routine three days a week slimmed their midsections 2 percent more than those who just walked.

8. Improve heart health. Your heart and arteries age faster if you have blood sugar problems, thanks to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, inflammation, stiff arteries, and other effects, say University of Colorado experts. In a 2011 review, these experts noted that cardiovascular health declines twice as fast in people with diabetes as in people without diabetes. The antidote? Aerobic exercise plus strength training, which the researchers say may slow the damage.

9. Need less medication for high cholesterol and high blood pressure. That’s important because some of these meds can cause weight gain. In a 2012 National Institutes of Healthy study of 5,145 people with diabetes, those who followed a healthy diet and got regular exercise lost weight and needed less medication (and less expensive, name-brand medication) for optimal control of their cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

10. Improve total body health. Exercise can strengthen your bones, lower risk for certain cancers, improve your sleep, and lift your mood.

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