People with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) can gain the same benefits from exercise as anyone else.   In fact, The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends, encourages and endorses exercise and weight training for those diagnosed with Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes!   Yet, studies show that many people with T1D do not engage in regular physical exercise activity due to a fear of hypoglycemia or dangerously low blood- glucose levels.  Exercise scientists and athletes with Diabetes say that those who have T1D can exercise safely and effectively as long as they pay close attention to how their body is responding to the exercise regimen and they learn to adjust their insulin, food and physical activity accordingly.

What we definitely know from research is that “strength training or resistance training makes your body more “sensitive” to insulin; which, in turn lowers blood glucose levels.”   Weight training also improves and/or maintains muscle development and strength.  The more muscle you have, the more calories your body will burn – even at rest!  Dr. Jack Wilmore, a highly esteemed and legendary figure in Exercise Physiology and co-founder of the Huffines Institute at Texas A&M University in Texas stated years ago that muscle tissue is very active tissue and can burn 30-40 calories per pound of muscle at rest. The ADA says that preventing muscle loss by strength training is the key to an independent lifestyle as we age!

So, what do we know about weight training and Type 1 Diabetes? 

Since TD1 is an insulin-dependent condition, it is wise for an individual to begin monitoring their blood glucose/insulin levels 1 to 2 hours before weight training.  In order to prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar level) from occurring, a meal or snack an hour or two prior would be the smart thing to do.  Increases in blood glucose levels are the normal response to exercise with “short-term” weight training.  A progressive increase of training intensity causes a continual increase of blood glucose levels, but with no alarming effects.

Studies used to show the benefits of strength training for Diabetics were based on circuit weight training programs such as this one:

Circuit weight-training program guidelines

Use upper body and lower body exercises that are basic in design (chest presses, lat pulldowns, knee bend exercise for legs such as leg press, squats, leg extension and leg curls).

– Sets & Repetitions:   1 to 2 sets of 15-20 reps per exercise

– Rest  Intervals of 30 seconds to 1 minute between each set

– Duration:  Initially, your workout should last 20-30 minutes; then, as your condition improves you can train up to an hour.

The studies illustrated that insulin response to exercise is the focal point in how it helps diabetics improve their condition whether it’s diabetes 1 or 2.  Exercise such as weight training improve insulin’s function in the body known as “insulin sensitivity”, which means insulin communicates better with your muscle cells, allowing the delivery of glucose and nutrients.  By improving insulin, function – induced by exercise – triggers the development of muscle tissue growth and with more muscle tissue development the diabetes condition improves.  Research shows that historically, diabetics can have a decrease of muscle composition; therefore, it is essential for diabetics to exercise in order to develop a good amount of muscle so insulin can work better!  The increased muscle mass is important in managing diabetes.

Woman working quads

The major benefits of strength training for type 1 diabetes

– Improved Cholesterol profiles

– Improved Heart Function

– Decrease Blood Pressure

– Increase Insulin sensitivity/blood glucose profiles

– Improved strength, power and endurance

– Better Bone Strength

Nutrition also plays an integral role in Insulin performance – for example, the amino acid Leucine aid in creating insulin sensitivity.  Other nutrients such as Magnesium, Chromium and Vanadyl Sulfate are referred to as “Insulin Mimicking Nutrients.”  Notably, the supplement, Tribustol was designed to have a comprehensive approach to enhancing insulin sensitivity.

Contraindications of exercise

(symptom(s) or condition(s) that makes exercise inadvisable)

– Complications involving retinopathy (any non-inflammatory disease of the retina)

– High resting blood sugar (> 250-300 mg/dl)

– Times of peak medication activity

– Drop in blood pressure with exertion

– Low resting blood sugar (< 100 mg/dl)

(soukup, J. et al. 1994. “Resistance Training Guidelines for Individuals with Diabetes Mellitus.”)
The Diabetic Educator 20:129-37)

In conclusion – when looking for a type of exercise to benefit diabetes, consider weight training as a great choice since we now know how it can help improve the disease holistically.   With the increased muscle development from exercise, we now know this creates a better environment in the body to allow insulin to work better, and with some luck, the diabetic user may be able to decrease the use of insulin administration.


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