Exercise and Diabetes – What Types of Exercise Help the Most?

February 18, 2011

I’ve wanted to do an exercise and diabetes post for a long time now. I am by no means an expert on diabetes, but I wanted to research and put up a post on this important subject. More importantly, I would like people to comment and hopefully point to more resources about diabetes and exercise. My goal is that over time, the comment section on this particular post will grow into a nice resource on the topic. There are so many bright readers and contributors that I would love to see this happen.

Exercise and Diabetes

[It would be great if we could help some people kick diabetes butt. Even if this post simply helps people control their diabetes…that would be cool.]

The Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes: This is the rougher of the two types of diabetes. Only 15 percent out of all the people with diabetes have type 1. Bottom line – a person with type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin. They have to take insulin regularly to stay alive. Type 1 diabetes in NOT preventable. You cannot reverse or prevent type 1 by doing lots of exercise or eating carefully. It is not a result of a person’s lifestyle.

Type 2 Diabetes: This type of diabetes can be caused by lifestyle (but not always). Often times people with type 2 diabetes have been overweight and unfit for long periods of time. This typically happens later in life, and is why it is also referred to as “Adult-Onset Diabetes”. Unfortunately due to the rise of childhood obesity, people in their teens and 20’s are now developing type 2 diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes develop a condition where the insulin isn’t working properly…they are insulin resistant.

So We Will Discuss Type 2 Diabetes and Insulin Resistance

Since 85% of all people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, and type 2 diabetes is something that can be improved (and sometimes prevented) with diet and exercise…this is the main focus of the post.

Insulin Resistance – A Simple Explanation

I hope I haven’t lost anyone so far…I used to skim when I saw terms like “insulin resistance”. Here is a simple explanation: The cells in the body don’t respond properly to insulin…glucose isn’t getting shuttled from the blood into the cells properly. The issue is with the cells in the body…there is enough insulin, but the cells are not responding to it like they should. Since the cells are not responding to the proper amount of insulin, people with type 2 diabetes often need to take additional insulin.

Why Insulin Resistance Happens in the First Place

So it makes sense that we would want to avoid insulin resistance. Again…I’m going to simply a complex process. It is more complicated than I what I have outlined, but this will give you a general idea on how to possibly avoid insulin resistance.

  • Frequent high exposure to insulin increases insulin resistance.
  • Large amounts of food in one sitting releases more insulin.
  • Frequent insulin spikes, speed up insulin resistance.
  • Obesity can lead to insulin resistance.
  • Lack of exercise can lead to insulin resistance.

Insulin Resistance and Exercise

[The first part of this post is about getting a basic understanding of type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance. Now let’s talk about what types of exercise helps control and reduce insulin resistance…and reduces the symptoms of type 2 diabetes.]

Time to Talk About How Exercise Can Help With Diabetes

So we know that being overweight can contribute to insulin resistance and getting diabetes. We also know that diet and spiking your insulin by overeating on a regular basis can contribute to type 2 diabetes. So what type of exercise is going to help with diabetes? Here is what I found through a little research.

High Intensity Sprinting for Diabetes: Richard Nikoley has a good post on how High Intensity Interval Training can reduce the effects of diabetes. Richard’s blog, Free the Animal, is one of the best health and fitness blogs on the net by the way.  Dig around once you are there. Here is the gist of the post:

  • Intense exercise draws glucose out of the muscle…then the muscles pulls the glucose out of the bloodstream and into the muscle cells.

So depleting your muscles of glucose, assists the cells in getting the glucose from the bloodstream to the muscle cells.

Combination—Weights and Aerobics—Best for Diabetics: Clarence Bass is a guy I first read about when I was 15. The guy was the most ripped 40+ year old I had ever seen. I have been a fan of his work and love it that he is still going strong. You can dig around his site for a long time and learn a lot of great things. In this post he refers to a recent study from November 24th, 2010 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Here is what this study found:

  • A combination of aerobic and resistance training helped patients with diabetes better than just walking or doing resistance training alone.

So Clarence Bass found a study which shows that a combination of resistance training and aerobics (cardio) had the best effects on helping with diabetes. “Only the change in the combination group was considered statistically significant…The combination group also saw a lowering in the amount of diabetes medication needed on average.”

The Definitive Guide to Insulin, Blood Sugar & Type 2 Diabetes: Mark Sisson does an outstanding job of explaining type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance in this post. If you have read my blog for any period of time, you know I am a big fan of Mark’s Daily Apple. It is a great site. Here is Mark’s take on diabetes and exercise.

  • First off, exercise does have a major impact on improving insulin sensitivity since muscles burn your stored glycogen as fuel during and after your workout. Muscles that have been exercised desperately want that glucose inside and will “up regulate” insulin receptors to speed the process. That’s one reason exercise is so critical for type 2 diabetics in regaining insulin sensitivity.

Mark also believes that a combination of resistance training and aerobics is the way to go…”Resistance training seems to be as effective as aerobic activity, but a mix of the two is the best.”

Proper Exercise Can Prevent Type 2 Diabetes?

Unfortunately some people will develop type 2 diabetes even while staying in great shape, exercising and following a healthy diet. That being said, a large portion of people who develop diabetes could have avoided it with regular exercise and a smart diet. Some takeaways:

  • Include some High Intensity Interval Training in your routine.
  • If you just perform resistance training, add in cardio.
  • If you just perform cardio, add in resistance training.
  • Avoid becoming obese or overweight.
  • If you’re overweight, simply lose that excess weight ASAP.

I Am Just Scratching the Surface Here…

I would love to hear from people who either have diabetes and how they cope with it…or other helpful books and studies people have found online. I also realize that I barely spoke about how excess carbs can contribute to insulin resistance. Although this article’s focus was exercise and diabetes, I’m fine if we discuss diet and diabetes in the comment section as well.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Bryan Richard May 24, 2011 at 2:48 pm

I just got my first diabetic client a couple of weeks ago…this is really beneficial

thanks so much

Health & Fitness June 1, 2011 at 8:22 am

My client is a diabetic and had previous heart conditions…I usually try to add in cardio with his resistance training but truthfully it scares me….because we do grueling cardio before the workout…but we’re making progress

danielle July 14, 2011 at 2:44 pm

THANK YOU for explaining the difference between the types for people. as a type 1 diabetic i find it absolutely discouraging to have people misunderstand my disease. I strength train 3x a week, and run distance and intervals to keep myself healthy and it is beyond frustrating to have people assume i am unhealthy simply because my pancreas stopped working.

Josh August 19, 2011 at 11:36 am

Anyone with diabetes should ABSOLUTELY use a combination of strength training and cardiovascular activity. Plus vary the length and speed of cardio.

Think Fartlek’s, intervals, and long slow distance. Each activity plays a different role for the diabetic.

I break down the basics of what I mean by that here: strongdiabetic.com/…of-exercise-for-the-diabetic/

Personal Training Hampstead November 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Great post. My mom has type 2 diabetes and we found that:
ALA (Alpha lipoic acid) – is fantastic as it mimics insulin so that the body needs to produce less (effectively lowering the insulin resistance threshold)
Cinnamon – Can really help in the same way but to a lesser extent.
Detoxing – reducing fat by means of reducing oestrogen.
and lastly, Glutamine – an effective way to restore glycogen without a massive insulin response.

Combine that with the exercise you recommended and you’ve got a cure (at least for type 2) that can effectively reverse the condition.

Paul November 25, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Good effort. One point. Overeating and underexercising is the main cause of insulin resistance. Protein will induce an insulin response similar to some carbohydrates, so even refined carbs in moderation are not an issue in insulin resistance. It’s not the carbs, it’s the overeating in general, including fat, which helps to compromise the metabolic environment.

David @ The Natural Health Service January 12, 2012 at 3:28 am

Some great comments here. Yes, being overweight is the main cause of insulin resistance – but particularly if the weight is carried mostly in the abdominal area.

Interesting that in general the recommendations to help reverse type 2 diabetes is the same as would be recommended for general health for everyone anyway – regular exercise, both cardio and resistance, and good diet with lean meat and vegetables, and not too much carbs – especially refined carbs.

It’s also worth noting that chromium and vanadium play a role in regulating blood sugar, so chromium supplements can help.

unusual travel January 21, 2012 at 6:00 am

It is really important to exercise to be fit,,you expressed it in a really nice way!

Silhouette March 11, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Both the paleo diet and the vegan diet are extremes. Not everybody can do the paleo diet and vica versa. You need to see what metabolic type you are first.

Greg white May 16, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Not true, type 2 diabetes is not curable. You can reverse the symptoms but it is not curable

Greg white May 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I’m a type 1 for 23 years and Rusty summed it up well. It’s obviously massively more complex but summed up well. I started body weight work 3 times a week, hit sprints once and went paleo ish and my blood sugar average and amount of insulin needed dropped. This meant my insulin sensitivity increased quite a lot. I can say you don’t want diabetes, it’s a real pain in the ass, literally sometimes As i have to inject in my cheeks;) and someone above wrote ‘just eat whole grains’ ,not true, don’t. Don’t want diabetes? Simple, exercise regularly, cut out sugar or foods containing it, processed food, grains and careful with pasteurized dairy and too much fruit. Eat real whole food.

Sarah Antos July 1, 2012 at 7:08 pm

My son is 20 years old with type 1 diabetes. He complains that when he exercises it drains him too much and refuses to exercise. The doctors have not come up with a very good system for him as far as controlling blood sugar levels during exercise. Do you have any recommendations or anyone that is type 1 can they suggest what they have done. He is on a pump.

Ferdinand Ordeniza July 9, 2012 at 7:32 am

Hope you can try the DIABETWATCH (225mg/30 capsule/bottle).. It has a good result…

Lisa July 18, 2012 at 4:18 am

Frustrated! I have been recently diagnosed with IR. After doing my own research the advice was to workout at a fat-buring level. I can’t lose weight at that level. In the past I have only been able to lose at an aerobic level. The reason for the fat-burning advice was because the muscle will release sugar into the blood stream at an aerobic level and too much sugar will damage the organs. I wish there was more research on IR and exercise so that consistant advice could be given.

Steve Gibbo August 29, 2012 at 9:02 am

I’ve had diabetes type 1 since I was 4, now 21 and have played sport all of my life, keep fit in the gym, therefore have had issues with my diabetes control. Howwever, through experience I’ve found that there is no perfect solution of controlling levels throughout exercise as there is different intensities! Best way I have found is to check levels as often as possible each day, throughout exercise, helping you as a personm to understand how your body reacts! This then can help you adapt your dietary intake when taking part in any form of exercise. If taking part in long lasting intense exercise, ensure your body has a good amount of slow release background nutrition to feed off as well as taking in a good fast acting energy sorce prior to this!! If levels are well controlled, then by doing this means no insulin has to be injected near the time of activity, therefore no insulin spike, easier fat loss, as ‘Rusty’ pointed out in an earlier blog! However, body will be provided with energy source to feed off throughout majority of the exercise, meaning level of body fat percentage burned throughout is lower than what a person without type 1 would be (makes ‘fasting’ harder, due to sugar level control). Yet it can be achieved if you are able to plan and be strict with yourself on a daily basis!!!!

prakash January 9, 2013 at 10:45 pm

can u tell me which exercise to be done. Please sugest

khaja naimuddin February 16, 2013 at 3:45 am

i have type 2 diabetes am doing physical exercise and walking at after office hours, since from 4 month am regularly walking i feel m wait is decreasing .what that mean sugar level in the body is decreasing .sometime am feeling energetic some time week!

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