Diabetes is a fairly dreaded word, as many people just think of pricking and injecting oneself numerous times a day. However, this is not always the case. Being World Diabetes Day today, as well as Diabetes Awareness Week this week, I thought I would provide some insight into this common, yet often misunderstood, condition.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is defined by ACSM as: “a chronic metabolic disease characterized by an absolute or relative deficiency of insulin that results in hyperglycaemia”. More simply put, diabetes is a condition resulting in prolonged high blood glucose (sugar) levels, as a result of little or no insulin production.
Various types of diabetes exist. I will discuss the two most common types – type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The first distinction to make is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Type 1, or insulin-dependent, diabetes is usually present from a young age, although late onset type 1 diabetes may also occur later in life. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, in which there is destruction of the beta cells in the pancreas – the cells responsible for producing insulin. The result of this is a complete insulin deficiency; therefore, these people immediately start insulin injections.
Type 2, or non-insulin dependent, diabetes usually presents itself later in life and occurs as a result of a combination of insulin resistance and decreased insulin secretion by the pancreas. Various factors increase the risk for developing type 2 diabetes. These include obesity (especially a large waist circumference), physical inactivity, family history, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and stress. Individuals with type 2 diabetes usually start with oral medication to improve insulin sensitivity and will possibly start insulin injections later on if necessary, to accommodate for the decreased insulin secretion. Thus, it is possible to have type 2 diabetes and be insulin-dependent; this does not mean you have type 1 diabetes.
Why is exercise so important in managing diabetes?
There are many complications associated with diabetes, including cardiovascular (heart), renal (kidney), and neuropathies (nerve system damage). Physical activity is essential in managing these complications. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes put individuals at increased risk for heart disease. Therefore, exercise is important to reduce the risk of heart disease, as has been discussed in previous blogs. Exercise also improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, thereby decreasing insulin requirements. Individuals with type 2 diabetes also often have high blood pressure and high cholesterol and are often overweight. Exercise is particularly important for these individuals to manage these conditions, as well as to reduce body fat percent.
Individuals who are on insulin therapy (injections) must be carefully monitored, especially when starting an exercise programme, as they tend to respond very quickly to exercise. During exercise, the body uses glucose as an energy source. Different types of insulin have different peak onset times. If the insulin peaks at the same time as the individual is exercising, then too much glucose may be used up, resulting in the individual experiencing a hypoglycaemic incident – the glucose dropping too low to keep the body functioning. The individual may faint and lose consciousness. Usually, one will have other symptoms first, such as sweating, shaking and nausea. Individuals will generally start to learn how their bodies react to hypoglycaemia.
On the other hand, individuals with type 1 diabetes are at risk of developing ketoacidosis if they exercise with very high sugar levels. If the blood glucose levels are not controlled and are too high, then there is no glucose in the cells, which means that fat must be broken down and used as an energy source. During this process, ketones, which are acids, are produced. This causes the body to become acidic and a coma may result if this state is prolonged.
An individual with diabetes will benefit from any exercise regimen. It is recommended that these individuals do at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week, to reap the cardiovascular benefits of exercise. They must also do light resistance training at least 2 to 3 times per week to improve muscle strength, decrease body fat percent and increase glucose metabolism. Stretching is also important to maintain flexibility and joint mobility and to reduce stress.
So, if you have diabetes, don’t pretend it is not there and that it can’t cause any harm because you don’t have any visible symptoms. It is crucial to check your blood glucose levels regularly, follow a healthy diet and exercise on a regular basis. When exercising, be aware of how you are feeling and check your blood glucose levels whenever necessary if you are not feeling quite right. Always have a snack or some fruit juice nearby in case your glucose levels drop too low.
Diabetes is not something to be afraid of. If it is carefully monitored and correctly managed, one can live a reasonably hassle-free, long and healthy life. Educate yourself on how it works, so that you can be proactive and look after your body.