100 years ago, if you developed diabetes, you endured a variety of treatments ranging from starvation to amputations. Today, diabetes is managed with a variety of treatments ranging from insulin injections to medication to lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, depending on the type of diabetes you were diagnosed with and when you received the diagnosis. What a difference a century makes!
Exercise is an extremely important cornerstone in the management of diabetes. Exercise, in addition to clearing out glucose (blood sugar), makes your body more responsive to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps move blood sugar from the blood stream into your cells. If you can only know one hormone, it should be insulin. The pancreas (an organ that regulates blood sugar) secretes insulin in response to high blood sugar, and your cells absorb blood sugar when stimulated by insulin.
Why so much emphasis on moving? Because an active person’s cells respond better to insulin. Moderate levels of exercise such as walking for 30 minutes will help your muscle cells sweep up nearly 20 times more glucose. When someone exercises on a regular basis, their muscle fibers change and adapt to a form that is more sensitive and responsive to insulin. Those enhanced muscle fibers also have higher capillary density and greater blood supply. All of this adds up to lower blood sugar levels and a lowered risk of diabetes.
Picture a dry sponge. You spill water on the counter and grab the sponge to clean it up. The sponge will absorb until it is saturated, and at that point will no longer absorb any more water, unless you squeeze it out. The same principle holds true for your muscle cells. After you eat a meal, the carbohydrates digest into glucose and get swept into your muscle cells. If you don’t move and “squeeze out” the glucose in those cells before the next meal, the next wave of glucose that comes down won’t be absorbed. Leaving too much glucose in the blood can lead to not only type 2 diabetes, but cardiovascular damage as well. To paraphrase an old saying, “you can lead a muscle to glucose, but you can’t make it drink.” Exercise is very important for people with diabetes to stay healthy, as well as people without diabetes to help lower their risk for incurring the disease.
Family & Consumer Sciences
Ohio State University Extension
Liz Smith, M.S, RDN., L.D