To mark World Diabetes Day, Shahzadi Devje, Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator, discusses the importance of physical activity, explores some common barriers and ways to overcome them.

Being physically active is crucial in managing diabetes and improving overall health. Regular exercise can prevent or delay the development of type 2 diabetes. For those with diabetes, regular activity offers considerable benefits like improving the body’s ability to use insulin and helps manage blood glucose (sugar) levels.

Physical activity can be a daily struggle for many of us. With the growth of technology and the nine-to-five office lifestyle that we lead, it’s no surprise that a pandemic of physical inactivity is apparent. Almost everything is accessed instantaneously at the touch of a button. We have the ability to work, learn, shop and entertain ourselves from the comfort of our own homes. The “modern” lifestyle has removed many of the conventional modes of physical activity.

Despite this shift, it’s important for those with diabetes to be more active so as to be healthy.

Did you know that physical activity can be as powerful as glucose-lowering medication, and with fewer side effects?

Exercise is one of the most frequently prescribed therapies both in health and disease. So, how does physical activity help to lower blood sugar levels?

During exercise, active muscles require a source of energy to function (like fuel for a car). These muscles use glucose in your blood as their main source of fuel, and this lowers your blood sugar levels. Regular physical activity prevents glucose from building up in your blood.

Despite the countless benefits of exercise, many of us struggle with breaking barriers. Barriers prevent us from fully committing to, and incorporating, physical activity in our lives. Here are some common barriers that my clients with diabetes face, and some ways to overcome them.

“I don’t have the motivation!”

One of the most challenging aspects of physical activity is finding the motivation to start and continue an exercise regimen. Planning ahead is one way to increase motivation. Making physical activity part of your daily or weekly schedule is an important step. In my experience, many clients find it helpful to include exercise on their calendar as a reminder.

Think about the people who can support you. Family, friends and your community can be close allies. They can provide a sense of support and collective effort, which can be strong motivational forces. Why not consider joining the local walking club in your community or enrolling in sports related programmes in your region? Involving your children, grandchildren and partner can help you stay on track.

Family events that involve movement may be worth exploring. Mowing the lawn together, washing the car as a family, spring cleaning your home are few ways to get started. Being outdoors; such as trips to the park, camping and hiking or a day at the pool are fun ways to be active. Perhaps you could even share your motivation and success with others and inspire them to get active too!

It’s important to start off slowly and therefore set yourself up for success. Establishing realistic and achievable goals is an important step in this process. Depending on your level of fitness and health status, this will vary. If you are just starting out, you may consider the following as a reasonable goal: “I will exercise for 10 minutes, three times per week on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.”

In time, you can build upon this. If you are interested in learning how to set goals, check out this article.

“I’m scared that my sugars will drop too low!”

If your capacity for physical activity is limited, start off light and choose activities you enjoy. Examples of light forms of physical activity include: housework, walking and gardening.

Clients often share their fear of exercising because they worry it may cause their blood sugars to drop too low (hypoglycaemia). If you eat regularly and monitor your blood sugars, you are unlikely to have lows.

Planning ahead is key in managing this barrier. It's important to track your blood sugar before, during and after exercise. Your records will reveal how your body responds to exercise. This will help prevent potentially dangerous blood sugar fluctuations.

A snack may be necessary for exercise beginning 2 hours or more after your last meal, or for exercise lasting 1 hour or more. It is important to always carry a form of quick-acting sugar in case you experience hypoglycemia. The preferred choice is 15 g glucose in the form of glucose tablets. A small juice box (175 mL) is another convenient way to manage this.

Severe hypoglycemia, which is very low blood sugar levels can cause a person to pass out and can even be life threatening. It is recommended that you ask your diabetic care team about ways to manage severe hypoglycemia and have a treatment plan in place.

“I just don’t have time!”

With the hustle and bustle of life, and our obligations to family and work, we may struggle to find time to be active. However, can physical activity fit into your current lifestyle? Could certain routine tasks be tweaked to increase your level of activity? For example, could you:

  • Take the stairs instead of choosing the escalator or elevator.
  • Sweep your driveway and mow the lawn instead of contracting this out. Raking leaves, pruning, digging and picking up trash all counts as physical activity!
  • Choose to walk indoors (in your office building or the mall) or outdoors in your lunch break rather than sitting at your desk.
  • Consider parking a little further away, prompting you to walk that extra little bit.
  • Stretch to reach items in high places and squat or bend to look at items at floor level. Engage those muscles!
  • Carry your own grocery bags.
  • For those who are parents of younger children, consider going for a walk with a group after dropping your kids at clubs or classes.
  • Engaging in voluntary work in your community is a great way to keep active and socialise. With all the standing, bending, and walking, you will surely burn some calories!

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to manage and live well with diabetes. There is no better time than now to take control, break through barriers and actively manage your diabetes!