Susan B. Sloane, BS, RPh, CDE, has been a registered pharmacist for more than 20 years and a Certified Diabetes Educator for more than 15 years. Her two sons were diagnosed with diabetes, and since then, she has been dedicated to promoting wellness and optimal outcomes as a patient advocate, information expert, educator, and corporate partner.

The word exercise, to some, conjures up a picture of the pain of walking the treadmill and other images some people fear. Many people actually still love the treadmill, and several new treadmills now have options to control intensity and incline, and even come equipped with a small radio and television adapter. The treadmill is not always my preferred method of exercise, but I often use it while catching up on phone calls with friends or watching a television program I am interested in, and before I know it, I've walked five miles!

A common question I get asked is, “How much exercise should I do?” There is no magic number, just some general guidelines that can be helpful. It is important to try to do both cardio and aerobic exercise, along with some resistance exercises such as weightlifting, bands, etc. The definition of aerobic exercise by the American College of Sports Medicine is as follows: “Any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature.” This type of exercise helps strengthen the heart, which is a muscle that needs to be used a lot and should be taken care of properly. You should try to perform aerobic exercise in your target heart range for at least 20 minutes per session at least three times a week for maximum benefit.

The benefits of aerobic exercise are many. The heart is a muscle, and “conditioned”—or exercised—hearts tend to pump blood more efficiently. Trained athletes can have resting heart rates as low as 40 beats per minute, versus the average heart rate of 60 to 80 beats per minute. With more training, your heart pumps more efficiently.

Your muscles also benefit from aerobic exercise, as they get more efficient at consuming oxygen. Exercise causes mitochondria inside the muscles increase in number and activity with. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell—they use oxygen to burn carbohydrate and fat. The mitochondria can increase in number and activity in just a matter of days or weeks in response to regular aerobic exercise.

Most trainers recommend at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise at least three times per week for the best benefits. For diabetics in particular, the benefits of exercise have been proven through a study called the Diabetes Prevention Program. This study involved more than 3,000 individuals at high risk for diabetes who walked 150 minutes per week (five 30-minute walks per day) for a period of three years. These participants reduced their risk of diabetes by 58 percent! In patients with diabetes, exercise can improve insulin sensitivity, oftentimes quite dramatically.

How much and what type of exercise you need depends on the recommendation from your own healthcare team. This is dependent on many factors, including any co-existing conditions, such as neuropathy or heart disease. You need to remember that once you start a fitness program, you will need to re-evaluate your insulin/medication needs as your body starts to operate more efficiently. Also, remember to stay well hydrated even if you don’t feel thirsty, especially in the warm weather.

The value of exercise is well studied and documented—always try to put your health first and find time for you. You will be a better parent, spouse, and employee if you stay physically fit! Do it for you an all those you love!

To learn more about exercising with diabetes:

Exercise Is Not a Dirty Word
3 Low-Impact Exercises You Haven't Tried Yet
The Best Types of Exercise for People with Diabetes