Exercise: The Diabetes Secret Weapon
If you take hold of exercise and diet, you can control your diabetes and improve your whole life.
“I Feel Like a New Person”
Let’s say a dramatic treatment hit the market that could drop your blood sugar from 386 to 106 mg/dl, help you lose 100 pounds in 14 months, and squelch any ideas of using insulin. Would you be interested? Joseph Grossmann of Albany, New York, sure was — and those were his results. But it wasn’t a powerful new drug the 53-year-old took. In fact, he’s off all medication. His secret weapon? Exercise.
Grossmann walks his three dogs four to five miles a day, does pushups and sit-ups, digs in his garden, and lifts boxes at his job in a floral shop, and he rounds out his “treatment” with a meal plan of fresh vegetables, fish, and chicken. “I feel like a new person,” he says. “I’m proof that if you take a hold of exercise and diet, you really can control your diabetes and make your whole life a lot better.”
You’ve heard for years that exercise is good for you. But it has specific benefits for people with diabetes — a fact that healers in ancient cultures like India’s and China’s recognized centuries ago. Since then, scientists have discovered exactly how exercise works its magic. Here’s what it does:
Lowers blood sugar. Putting your muscles into action is like hitting your car’s accelerator: It instantly boosts the demand for fuel — namely, glucose. Once your muscles exhaust their own supply of glucose, they clean out the stores in your liver, then draw glucose straight from the bloodstream, lowering your blood sugar. When you’re done exercising, your body gives top priority to replenishing glucose stores in the liver and muscles rather than the blood, which means that your blood sugar will stay lower for hours — perhaps for as long as a couple of days, depending on how hard you worked out.
Boosts insulin sensitivity. If you exercise regularly, you can actually lower your level of insulin resistance. That’s because exercise forces muscles to use glucose more efficiently by making cells more receptive to insulin. It’s as if getting physical gives your cells a kick in the pants: If they absolutely must have more glucose, they’ll work harder to get it. Exercise also boosts the number of insulin receptors. Do it regularly and you’ll perpetuate good blood-sugar control. In fact, the effect won’t entirely fade away unless you go for about 72 hours without a workout. Even if you’ve been a die-hard couch potato for years, you can ratchet up your insulin sensitivity with exercise in as little as one week.
Burns fat. What happens when muscles tap out the glucose in the liver and blood? After about 30 minutes of continuous exercise, the body turns to fatty acids both in flabby storage sites throughout the body and in the blood. Using fat for energy helps clear the blood of harmful fats, such as LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. It also boosts “good” HDL cholesterol and helps trim abdominal fat, which is linked to a higher risk of diabetes and complications.
Shaves pounds. The more active you are, the more energy you use, and if you control your diet as well, you’ll end up with a calorie deficit that eventually tips the scales in a favorable direction. A bonus: Exercise also builds up your muscle mass, and since muscle burns energy faster than other types of tissue (especially fat) do, that means you’ll burn more calories all the time — even when you’re lounging in front of the TV.
Protects your heart. Exercise cuts your chances of having a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular problem linked with diabetes by helping to improve your risk profile. In one study, type 2 patients who took part in an aerobic-exercise program lasting only three months saw their triglyceride and HDL cholesterol levels improve by about 20 percent, along with a significant drop in blood pressure. And the benefits aren’t limited to those with type 2 diabetes. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found the risk of dying from cardiovascular illnesses to be three times higher among sedentary people with type 1 diabetes than among those who regularly burn about 2,000 calories a week through exercise.
Makes you feel good. This isn’t a minor point. Dealing with a chronic disease day after day can sometimes feel discouraging, stressful, or even depressing. Exercise helps by producing feelgood chemicals in the brain that can boost your mood, relieve stress, and alleviate the blues. It also does wonders for your sense of confidence and self-esteem. When you finish a workout, you’re justified in feeling that you’ve accomplished something important. You might feel that if you can do this, maybe you really can get your health under control. And you’d be right.
Makes you look better. It’s not the most important health benefit, but it sure is a strong motivator. Without a doubt, if your fitness improves, your appearance does, too. You lose flab and gain muscle, strength, and energy, which make you seem livelier, more capable, and maybe even younger. What’s not to like?