When I was first diagnosed, one of the first things that sprung into my mind was “I need to get to the gym”.
I’ve always tried my best to stay fit. Whether it’s playing football, hiking around Dartmoor in Devon as a teenager, water-sports, running around – I’ve continuously wanted to have some form of physical activity in my life.
I first started going to the gym in my late teens and didn’t really take it massively seriously. I didn’t understand the health benefits, I wasn’t really interested in all of that, I just wanted to build muscle and look like the guys on the front of Men’s Health.
However, since being diagnosed in November 2011 I wanted to understand what was the best form of exercise, or if there was one at all, that could improve my diabetes management. One of the biggest concerns for me, and still is, is the lack of information and education provided to new and continuing patients on the importance of a healthy lifestyle, including the need for routine exercise.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that strength training has a range of benefits when it comes to managing a number of chronic health conditions, including both forms of diabetes. The research suggests that when undergoing a period of weight training your body produces more lean muscle mass which is more sensitive to insulin. Therefore this can result in lowering the amount of insulin injected into the body as this lean muscle tissue is particularly good with improving how your body deals with elevated blood sugars.
Strength, or resistance, training can be done in a varying number of ways. The most popular are hand held weights like dumbbells and barbells, resistance bands or using your own body weight. This can result in building muscle and help mobility to just carry out every day tasks. Just because you weight/ strength/ resistance train does not mean you’re looking to body-build or bulk up, this is a misconception of “hitting the weights”. It takes a lot of work and eating a lot of calories over a number of months/ years to see this “body-builder” physique so if this isn’t your goal, you needn’t be worried about this.
Specifically, exercise stimulates your muscles to produce more insulin receptors – including receptors that do not require insulin to transport sugar into the muscle.
There are a very large number of benefits when it comes to exercise in general:
- Improves bloody sugar levels by increasing the sensitivity to insulin.
- Increases basal metabolic rate (BMR) which is essentially the number of calories you consume whilst sedentary.
- Helps lose body fat.
- Increases HDL cholestoral whilst lowering LDL cholesterol (not all cholesterol is bad) which in turn reduces risk in cardiovascular health.
- Can help reduce the risk of cancer.
- Improves your sex drive.
- Reduces fatigue and tiredness.
- Increases stength.
- Increases bone density.
- Improves balance.
“insulin fits into the insulin receptor like a key fits into the lock in a door. The key fits, turns and you pass through the door. Imagine insulin is the key, the insulin receptor is the lock and sugar is you – insulin fits into the receptor and sugar passes through the door. In diabetes it is as if someone stuck gum into the lock- the key no longer fits or functions properly. Now imagine if there was a way to make more doors – including some without locks! This is exactly what exercise, and especially resistance exercise, appears to do. Your body has the potential to make doors for glucose to be absorbed that do not require insulin to work – however exercise is the trigger for this process to occur.”
I’ve definitely found this the case with my diabetes management. Once I started weight training I found that I was able to reduce my background and fast-acting insulin levels.
Having spoken to a number of diabetics about weight training, or any form of exercise, their biggest fear is going hypo during or after exercise, which is a real concern but if done responsibly and you listen and work to understand your own body it is perfectly safe.
What I’ve learnt with my body is that I respond well to having a small meal or a snack 1-2 hours before I step into the gym so that my body is fuelled and has something in the tank and then having something in my pockets as a backup. I check my blood glucose levels 1-2 hours before and then 30 minutes and 2 hours after weight training to understand how my body reacts to exercise and then act accordingly.
It does take some trial and error to start out with. Like I’ve said before, you are the expert in your own diabetes management and every person with type 1 or type 2 diabetes will have a different response to a new activity. Therefore it is important to double-check everything through self monitoring,
Resistance training has a wide range of benefits – from my perspective there’s no doubt about it. I’ve seen it improve my own health immensely and I’ve never felt better. It has only benefited my HbA1c results (usually in the 5.5 – 7.0 range) and can be easily done either at home or in a gym. A good workout, if done correctly, can take roughly 45 minutes, there’s no need to spend hours upon hours in the gym!
I’d love to hear any stories of anyone who has found exercise and/or weight training beneficial in their lives and with their diabetes management! If you’d like to leave a comment below so others can see, that would be fantastic!