What is diabetes?
Most people believe that there are two types of diabetes: childhood and adult-onset. But there are actually four identified by the medical profession. They are:
Type 1 diabetes mellitus: T1DM. In Type 1 diabetes, the body's immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. It comes on suddenly — often in childhood — and requires injected or pumped insulin for life. It carries with it a constant threat of complications.
Type 1.5 diabetes mellitus: LADA or Latent Autoimmune Diabetes of the Adult. Type 1.5 is very similar to Type 1, but it develops slowly in adulthood. It generally requires insulin (oral or injected) throughout life.
Type 2 diabetes mellitus: T2DM. This condition results from insulin resistance — which occurs when cells fail to use insulin properly. It usually appears in middle age. Exercise and dietary changes may be enough to reverse T2DM, but some people with Type 2 must take insulin — either orally or by injection.
Gestational Diabetes Mellitus: GDM. This type occurs during pregnancy; although it usually ends when the pregnancy ends, it increases the lifetime risk for Type 2 diabetes. Insulin may or may not be required, but blood sugar needs to be monitored closely throughout the pregnancy.
What is glucose and what is insulin? How do they work together?
Glucose is the body's main energy source. Every cell in your body needs glucose. After you eat, your digestive system breaks carbohydrates down into glucose which then moves first into the bloodstream and then into cells. The liver and muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen.
Insulin is a much-needed hormone that helps to regulate your metabolism. It affects the way your body uses food for fuel.
Insulin has two important functions: (1) It allows glucose to pass into cells so that the body can use the energy provided by glucose, and (2) it assists in shutting off excess internal glucose productions. Without insulin's help, glucose would never reach your cells to provide energy.
When insulin doesn't work as it should, blood glucose levels remain high. This is called hyperglycemia. It used to be that you would be diagnosed with diabetes if you have two fasting blood glucose levels which are above normal. However, today doctors are more likely to look at your A1C score (an average of your blood sugar for the previous three months). If it rises above 7, medication or insulin may be required.
What are the symptoms of diabetes?
Early symptoms appear suddenly in Type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes typically occurs after the age of 40, but statistics show that more children and young adults are developing Type 2 diabetes.
Here are some more symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes (some of them are on the Wikipedia graphic):
- frequent urination, especially at night
- abnormal thirst
- constant hunger
- rapid loss of weight
- excessive fatigue
- blurred vision
- increased infections of gums, urinary tract, eyes, skin
- dry, itchy skin, slow-healing skin infections
- tingling or loss of feeling in hands or feet
The three most common symptoms of diabetes are fatigue, increased urination, and thirst.
If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor. A regular check of blood sugar levels is a good idea if there is diabetes in your family.
What are the complications of diabetes?
Persons with type 1 and type 2 diabetes face complications that are life-threatening. It is always the goal of diabetics to avoid these complications, of course. Some severe and life-threatening complications that might occur are:
- cardiovascular (heart) disease and dental disease;
- kidney failure; and,
- nerve damage which may result in amputations.
The best way to prevent complications is through careful monitoring of glucose and insulin levels. As well, exercise and diet play an important role in controlling the disease.
Should I exercise if I have diabetes?
The short answer: YES!
Exercise is very important in managing all types of diabetes — but particularly Type 2.
- Improve the body's use of insulin;
- Burn excess body fat, helping to decrease and control weight (decreased body fat also results in improved insulin sensitivity);
- Improve muscle strength and bone density;
- Reduce stress, which in turn will promote relaxation, and release tension and anxiety;
- Reduce depression;
- Modify body composition; and,
- Help reverse insulin resistance that is associated with excess body fat.
What kind of exercise should I do?
Before beginning an exercise program, do the following:
Talk to your doctor about what you plan to do.
Make sure your glucose and insulin levels are stabilized.
During your exercise program, do the following:
Monitor your blood glucose and insulin levels before and after exercise. It may be necessary to adjust your insulin levels. (This may be particularly important for the person who has Type 1 or 1.5 diabetes.)
Include strength training, cardiovascular (aerobics), balance training, and stretch and flexibility in your daily routine.
If you attend a group fitness class, find out if the instructor is qualified to teach older adults. They may be able to help you with specific exercises or tell you which ones to avoid.
Let your fitness instructor know that you have diabetes.
A diagnosis of diabetes, particularly Type 2, is not the end of an active lifestyle. In fact, it is even more important to exercise and maintain a healthy diet. 1 2
This article is part of a series about various health conditions and the benefits of exercise. The other articles are:
- Exercise and Allergies
- Exercise and Arthritis
- Exercise and Asthma
- Exercise and Balance
- Exercise and Cancer
- Exercise and Chronic Pain
- Exercise and Circulation
- Exercise and COPD
- Exercise and Dementia
- Exercise and Heart Disease
- Exercise and Hypertension
- Exercise and Lifestyle and Older Adults: Recent Research
- Exercise and Mood
- Exercise and Osteoporosis
- Exercise and Our Brain
- Exercise and Pain vs. Burn: Will it ever stop hurting?
- Exercise and Parkinson's
- Exercise and Sleep
- Exercise and Stroke
- Exercise and Viruses: Exercise Immunology
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.