Diabetes & Exercise

Diabetes in America is rising precipitously! Currently there are 20.8 million Americans with the disease, up from 17 million in 2000. And, the number is expected to double over the next two decades. Equally troubling is that type 2 diabetes is now occurring in children as young as 5. Just 15 years ago, type 2 diabetes was dubbed “adult-onset” diabetes, primarily affecting people over 50.

What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease in which there is an overabundance of blood sugars. This occurs when the body is unable to produce insulin (as with type 1 diabetes) or properly utilize it (type 2). Insulin is a hormone needed to convert sugar into energy for daily functioning.

What causes diabetes?
Primary factors tied to diabetes include obesity, heart disease and hypertension, all of which can be prevented or treated through nutrition and exercise. Even for people who aren’t obese, excess fat stores become a risk factor for diabetes; the more we carry, the greater our risk.
A reasonably healthy fat range is 13-17% of total body weight for men and 18-23% for women. With 66% of Americans overweight, these ranges may appear extremely low. However, based on human design, these ranges (or somewhat lower) are what we should strive for.

The value of girth measures
A common gauge for determining diabetes susceptibility has been Body Mass Index (BMI), an estimate of body fat. Recently, it has been recognized that a more accurate indicator for diabetes is the waistline girth. Excess abdominal fat has been associated with increased incidences of diabetes in that it disrupts the proper functioning and balance of our hormones, particularly for women.
As a general guideline, average-height males (5’8″ to 6’) in the age range of 25 to 55 should strive to have a waistline girth within the range of 30 to 35 inches. Women of average height (5’4″ to 5’7″) in the same age range should strive for a waistline girth (measured at the narrowest part of the mid-torso for women, or 1.5” above the umbilicus for men and women) in the range of 25” to 29”.

The good news is that all diabetes can be controlled, and type 2 diabetes can be prevented, or reversed, through diet and exercise. Exercise acts in a similar manner as insulin in that it allows glucose to be taken up from the blood into cells. Also, exercise’s ability to reduce fat helps to improve insulin sensitivity.
Aerobic exercises help lower blood pressure and blood sugar while burning fat. Strength training is important in that fit muscles burn more fat and sugar daily, resulting in lower blood sugar readings. For every 10 pounds of fat lost, there is a 20% improvement in insulin sensitivity levels.
In other words, your body will be better able to control your blood sugar levels with less insulin, thereby placing less stress on your pancreas. It’s been found that strength training for 30 minutes three times a week increases insulin sensitivity, as would aerobic conditioning for 30 minutes four to seven times per week. Because the positive changes from exercise usually begin to diminish 24-72 hours after the last exercise session, physical activity on a regular basis is necessary to sustain those effects.

Exercise concerns
The primary concern for diabetics is to be aware of any drop in blood sugar levels resulting from exercise. The timing of your pre-workout meals is critical. Eat two to three hours prior to workouts. A mix of complex carbohydrates and proteins is ideal. Also, be sure to have fruit juice and healthy snacks handy during your workout. If you sense any form of adverse insulin reactions (such as a lack of balance and coordination or disorientation), stop exercising immediately and sit down. Have a cup of juice and/or a healthy snack bar. As for all exercisers, diabetics need to drink sufficient fluids before, during and after all workouts.

Nutrition Tips

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals and snacks.
  • Avoid allowing more than three hours to pass between eating.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Of paramount importance, avoid simple sugars such as junk foods, fancy coffees and white flour foods.

    Always remember, by eating healthfully and exercising regularly, all diabetes is controllable and type 2 diabetes is preventable, even reversible.

    Salvatore Fichera, MS, is an Exercise Physiologist. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Stop Aging—Start Training. Reach him at 212-687-1646 or sal@forzafitness.com.

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