How much does exercise actually help in controlling diabetes?

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Jason Loo
MPharm, PhD, RPh

 

We’ve all heard it before that a healthy diet and exercise is good for your health, but this piece of advice is all the more important for people who suffer from diabetes, particularly Type 2 diabetes. However, many patients continue to find it tough to cut that extra portion of their favourite food or maintain an exercise routine through their busy lifestyles. Many believe that using the right medication alone is enough to keep their diabetes in check, but in truth, this is rarely the case, and all three aspects (diet, exercise, and medication) are needed. One reason for this is that many diabetes patients fail to see the link between exercise and better diabetes control.

So how exactly does exercise help in controlling your blood sugar level? Besides helping you lose weight, exercise has also been shown to increase the amount of glucose used by your muscles (thus lowering blood sugar levels). This helps your body to use insulin in a more efficient way. In Type 2 diabetes, your body becomes somewhat resistant to the effects of insulin (which controls your blood sugar levels). By losing weight, it reverses this effect which in turn allows your body to control its own blood sugar levels better.

How much does exercise help? A recent review that combined several studies concluded that structured exercise could reduce HbA1C (a long term measure of diabetes control) by up to 0.9%. While at a glance that does not seem like a lot, as a comparison, a normal person’s HbA1C is less than 6.0%, and most medications for diabetes on the market today only reduce HbA1C by 0.5 – 1.5% when used as a single therapy.

So yes, exercise is as effective as medication when it comes to controlling your blood sugar level. When you factor in the fact that exercise also improves your cardiovascular health as well as making you look and feel better, it’s not difficult to understand why healthcare professionals continuously stress the need for regular exercise in making sure you stay healthy.

All that said, it is important to understand that benefits from exercise is a long-term effect. The study mentioned above showed that the greatest HbA1C reduction was associated with more than 150 minutes of exercise per week and a good diet. That may sound like a lot of work, but anyone who exercises regularly can attest to the fact that, once you manage to make a routine out of it, things will become much easier.

Try your best to schedule your exercise time whenever you think it’s easiest for you to maintain, be it early in the morning before you start your day, or at night when you come back from work. The key is consistency. After all, health is wealth! This is a long term investment, as the complications of diabetes can be quite serious (as we’ve previously highlighted). So, start investing by exercising today!

 

Reference:

Umpierre D, Ribeiro PAB, Kramer CK, Leitão CB, Zucatti ATN, Azevedo MJ, Gross JL, Ribeiro JP, Schaan BD. Physical Activity Advice Only or Structured Exercise Training and Association With HbA1c Levels in Type 2 DiabetesA Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA. 2011;305(17):1790-1799

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