Diabetes and Exercise
Diabetes, Exercise, and Glucose Levels
Generally, exercise helps control blood sugar levels, but it can also mean complications for some people who have diabetes.
By Krisha McCoy
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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When you take insulin for your diabetes, exercise can be an important tool in helping you control your blood sugar (glucose) levels. However, there are certain times that physical activity might be dangerous when you have diabetes, increasing your risk of complications.
The Benefits of Exercise: Blood Glucose Levels
People who exercise tend to have better control over their blood glucose levels than those who don’t participate in physical activities. After physical activity, your blood glucose levels tend to stay low for hours or even a day or more. This is because your body has to use more of its energy reserves during exercise, leaving less glucose circulating in your blood.
So for people with diabetes, regular exercise can lower your blood glucose levels and help improve your body's ability to utilize insulin. In fact, some people end up reducing their daily dose of insulin after they have been regularly exercising for a while.
Exercise Risks for People Who Use Insulin
While the benefits of exercise most often outweigh the risks for people with diabetes, there are some possible complications that can result from exercise.
For some people with type 1 diabetes, or insulin-dependent diabetes, ketones can build up in the blood or urine due to elevated blood glucose levels and low insulin levels. This high level of ketones can be dangerous for your health, since ketones act as a poison to your body. If you perform physical activities when your ketones are already high, ketone production gets ramped up even more, which in turn can make your blood glucose levels go even higher.
Another risk of exercise in people who take insulin for their diabetes is a complication called hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia is when your blood glucose levels fall dangerously low. This can happen during exercise, or up to a day after you have stopped exercising. Symptoms of hypoglycemia may include shaking, weakness, confusion, irritability, increased appetite, fatigue, excessive sweating, headache, fainting, or seizure.
Tips for Exercising When You Use Insulin
Here are some tips for exercising safely when you use insulin for your diabetes:
- Vary your routine.To get the most out of your workouts, aim to do a combination of aerobic exercises, strength training, and stretching. Talk with your doctor, who can help you devise an exercise routine that will be safe and effective for you.
- Time it right.Depending on your daily schedule and insulin plan, you may need to exercise at certain times during the day, and avoid exercising at others. Your diabetes care team can help you determine when the best times would be for you to exercise.
- Watch your ketones.If your doctor recommends that you check your ketones, avoid doing strenuous physical activities when you detect ketones in your blood or urine.
- Exercise with care.For some people who have diabetes complications, there are exercises that are not safe to do, such as heavy weight-lifting if you have vision problems. Ask your doctor if there are any limitations on the types of exercise you can do.
- Monitor your glucose levels.Ask your doctor if you should check your blood glucose levels before, during, and after exercise. In some cases, you may need to adjust your insulin dose, or have a snack before, after, or even during exercise.
- Carry glucose tablets.Having glucose tablets with you when you exercise is a good idea, since you can use them if your blood glucose levels dip.
As you get used to how exercise affects your blood glucose levels, you will learn how to adjust your schedule, food intake, and insulin to keep your levels in check. Once you are exercising on a regular basis, you will feel the rewards of physical activity, including better physical fitness, more energy, and reduced stress.
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