I don’t have time to go to the gym. Jogging on the treadmill is boring. It’s too cold outside to walk. These are just a few of the excuses that clinicians hear everyday from patients who avoid exercising.

It is easy for people to think of reasons to postpone regular exercise, but for those with diabetes the argument to stay motivated is compelling: exercise can help control the disease and drastically improve quality of life.

Unlike other chronic life-threatening diseases type 2 diabetes can be managed and even reversed. Exercising can help patients reduce the risk of complications, including stroke and heart disease.

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Lowering blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as improving flexibility and blood circulation are just some of the benefits of exercising.

Although evidence shows that certain kinds of exercise regimens are especially helpful for patients with diabetes, it is also important for people to choose a routine that works for them.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recently updated exercise recommendations to reflect some important new findings.1 Read on to find out more details on which exercise routines are best for controlling diabetes and why exercising is important for patients with this condition.

Stemming the flood of an epidemic

Twenty-five million U.S. children and adults live with diabetes,2 the ADA estimates, and these individuals have medical expenditures that are more than two times higher than those without disease.

Diabetes and obesity are sometimes referred to as epidemics because the number of people diagnosed each year continues to climb at a steady rate. The CDC predicts that one out of every three Americans will have diabetes by 2050, and the total cost of treating the condition will increase to $500 million by 2020.

Exercise and other diabetes management strategies hold the promise of not only improving the quality of life and the health of individuals with diabetes, but also reducing the rising medical costs associated with treating millions of people.

How does exercise control diabetes?

Exercise is an incredibly powerful tool for controlling diabetes because when muscles contract, they take up more blood glucose.  As the body switches from rest to physical activity, it begins to burn a blend of fat, sugar and carbohydrates.

Longer more intense periods of exercise require more fuel, and the body burns more carbohydrates — even in people who have trouble producing insulin.

These beneficial effects remain even after a person with diabetes finishes exercising — most will observe a decrease in blood glucose levels that lasts between two and 72 hours after exercising.1

Exercise improves both short-term and long-term insulin action, controls blood glucose levels and improves fat oxidation and storage in muscles.

Physical fitness also has beneficial psychological effects, reducing the symptoms of depression and increasing quality of life, according to a 2009 study by Williamson et al published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.3

Additional benefits include reductions in heart disease, peripheral neuropathy, autonomic neuropathy and improved physical function in people with kidney disease.1

Exercise tips

Before beginning a new exercise routine, the ADA encourages patients with diabetes and those with prediabetes to talk to health care providers about exercise options.

Starting slowly — walking ten minutes each week and building toward a goal — is recommended for those just beginning a new routine. Other tips to ensure success include finding a partner or group to make exercise more fun and supportive, and finding calorie-burning activities that are enjoyable.

Checking blood glucose levels before and after exercising can help patients avoid blood glucose levels that are too high or too low. People with a blood glucose level of 300 or more should use caution before exercise, the ADA recommends, as physical activity could increase these levels.

If blood glucose levels are too low before exercise, a light snack or adjusting medications may help. Comparing before and after blood glucose levels can also help quantify the benefits of exercise, as changes may be detectable early on.

Stretch first, but keep going

A five to ten minute stretch before working out can help the body warm up and keep joints flexible, but stretching and flexibility exercises are not a substitute for exercise. Stretching is simply a prelude to more rigorous physical activity.

Mild forms of physical activity such as yoga or tai chi alone have shown mixed results for people with diabetes. Stretching as part of a workout routine may be helpful, but should not take the place of other forms of exercise.

Break a light sweat

Walking, dancing, jogging and other forms of exercise that get increase the heart rate and oxygen consumption are considered aerobic exercises. Although exercising is a great way to manage diabetes, only about 39 percent of adults with the condition report that they are physically active.4

People with diabetes should engage in aerobic exercise at least three days a week, the ADA recommends, without allowing more than two days in a row to pass without exercise.