"Exercising is the most underused treatment and it's so, so powerful," said Sharon Movsas, RD, a diabetes nutrition specialist at the Clinical Diabetes Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
For most people with diabetes, exercise is a safe and highly recommended way to reduce the risk of complications. However, check with your doctor to make sure you don't have heart problems, nerve damage, or other issues that need special consideration when you are working out.
How exercise affects blood sugar
In general, blood sugar drops after exercise and is lower for the next 24 to 48 hours, says Movsas. "If I take a blood sugar reading after aqua-aerobics, I usually notice it's down," says David Mair, 79, of Marquette, Mich.
When you exercise, your muscles become more sensitive to insulin and absorb more glucose from the blood. However, like many aspects of type 2 diabetes, the response can be highly personal. Exercise can sometimes boost blood sugar. At first, you'll need to test your blood sugar before, after, and sometimes during exercise, to see how your body responds).
Exercise also helps lower blood pressurean important benefit since high blood pressure can contribute to heart attacks, strokes, eye problems, kidney failure, and other type 2 diabetes complications.
Start slow and work up
Even if you know exercise is good for you, it doesn't make it easy. Luckily, studies have shed light on the most successful exercise strategies for type 2 diabetes. Using a pedometer and aiming for 10,000 steps per day is one tried-and-true approach, although you need to determine what works best for you.
Overall, the goal is 30 minutes of aerobic activity at least five days a week. But it may take some time to get there, particularly if you've never been a big fan of exercise. In those cases, medication and diet are the preferred first step to get blood sugar down. Then you can start out with short (five-to 10-minute) walks before increasing your physical activity.
At first, physical activity may not feel good, particularly if you are obese, says Virginia Valentine, a certified diabetes educator who also has type 2 diabetes. If you are obese or have another condition that impairs your mobility (such as arthritis), you may even need a specialized exercise program.
Check with local hospitals to see if they have programs for the mobility-impaired, which may include chair exercises, yoga for seniors, Aquacise, or the use of recumbent stationary bikes.
However you exercise, you may be able to reduce your need for blood-sugar-lowering drugs if you stick with it.
"There are some cases where people have been able to be taken off medication," said Samantha Heller, RD, nutrition coordinator for the Fairfield, Conn., YMCA.