With the incidence of diabetes on the rise in not only the United States, but around the world, it is important to understand how exercise can be used in the treatment of the disease and to attenuate the effects of diabetes.  Diabetes mellitus can be present from birth, but it can also develop later in life due to poor eating habits and a sedentary life-style.  Type II diabetes develops later in life, although there are now incidences of type II diabetes in children.  It can best be described as the body becoming ineffective at using insulin.

What is diabetes?

Insulin is an important hormone for the body.  It is produced by specialized cells in the pancreas before being released into the blood stream.  Insulin may be the single most important anabolic hormone in the body.  When insulin binds to receptors on skeletal muscle cells and also fat cells, it triggers them to absorb glucose, or sugar, and triglycerides from the blood.  However, in those with diabetes, the body becomes less responsive to insulin, and glucose and triglycerides are not absorbed as well by those cells, leading to high blood sugar and high triglycerides.

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How is exercise important?

Exercise is beneficial for those with diabetes because skeletal muscle needs glucose in order to produce contractile force.  Without glucose for energy, muscles cannot contract.  In order for the body to exercise, muscle cells will have to absorb glucose, and so exercise is beneficial in reducing blood sugar by causing the muscle cells in the exercising muscles to become more effective at responding to insulin levels and glucose absorption.

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What type of exercise?

Although any form of exercise will be beneficial for those with diabetes, some types of exercise will provide more benefits than others.  For example, the more force a muscle produces, the more energy is needed.  Energy is derived from the breakdown of glucose.

Weight lifting is the most beneficial type of exercise for those with diabetes.  The increased metabolic demands of lifting weights will stimulate muscle cells to absorb glucose from the blood in much greater amounts and will also improve insulin tolerance, thereby reducing resistance to insulin, easing the workload of the pancreas.

Although lifting weights is challenging, it is also very rewarding.  With cardiovascular exercise, the metabolic demands are higher during activity, meaning there is an increased calorie burn during activity, but then quickly drops to baseline when activity ceases.  Weight lifting, however, is very physiologically different.  During weight lifting session, metabolic demands are very high and so the calorie burn is much higher than at baseline.  When activity ceases though, the metabolic demands remain elevated for several hours, and as such, the calorie burn is still higher than baseline after you leave the gym for a few hours.

Since one of the major factors leading to diabetes is obesity, the greater effect of weight loss through weight training versus cardiovascular exercise such as running or swimming over weeks and months will lead to more benefits in reducing the risk for diabetes or possibly even reversing some of the effects of diabetes.

How can I apply this?

All forms of exercise are beneficial for everyone, including those with diabetes.  However when the calorie burn is viewed over the course of a day, those who lift weights burn more calories throughout their day after exercising than those who participate solely in cardiovascular exercise.

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Do not fear!  Weight training does not necessarily lead to significant gains in muscle mass or bulkiness, especially for those with diabetes wanting to lose weight and become more healthy.  But weight training is the most beneficial form of exercise for diabetics.  It will, however, lead to weight loss, toning, an increase in strength, and decreased insulin resistance.

Since obesity can be a contraindication to high-impact activities, weight training can be useful in achieving weight loss quickly and effectively while increasing the body’s response to insulin.  Once that extra weight has been lost, in many cases, cardiovascular exercise can then be safely done without overstressing the joints.

Weight lifting is an intense but fun activity.  In addition to the aforementioned benefits, weight lifting helps to prevent injuries in sport and natural aging by promoting strong bones and healthy joints.  So head to the gym and start lifting!  But as with any exercise program, always check with your physician prior to beginning.

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