Best Exercises For Seniors With Diabetes

Kathy Quan

As your loved one ages, physical activity continues to be an important factor in managing diabetes symptoms such as high blood sugar and high blood pressure. With age, the exercise routine will become less strenuous and include more low-impact activities.

It will be just as important to maintain a regular schedule of exercise. It is not necessary to exercise every day but should be made a priority at least three times a week. Encourage your loved one to alternate forms of exercise such as aerobic activity and resistance training.


How Does One’s Metabolism Affect Blood Sugar?

Diabetes Mellitus is a group of metabolic disorders of carbohydrate metabolism. It is characterized by high blood glucose levels (hyperglycemia) as a result of the insufficient production of the hormone insulin (type 1 diabetes) or an ineffective response, or insulin resistance of cells (type 2 diabetes).

Metabolism is the chemical process of breaking down protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Therefore, the rate of metabolism is connected to controlling blood glucose levels.

While the causes and treatment of each type will vary, diet and medications work hard to manage blood sugars in each type.  Regular exercise plays an equally important role in increasing metabolic rate and managing diabetes.

An exercise program also correlates to weight loss and improved blood glucose levels as well as lower blood pressure which in turn helps to reduce typical diabetic complications such as cardiovascular disease, retinopathy, neuropathy, and kidney disease.

Regular exercise can also help to reduce cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce insulin resistance, manage heart rate, and improve general well-being.  


Best Types of Exercises for Diabetics

Consult your healthcare professional before beginning any exercise program to determine any specific restrictions or risks to consider. Be alert to any impairments and don’t exceed safety issues. All diabetics should avoid strenuous exercises, heavy weight lifting, and isometric exercises according to the American Diabetes Association. 

The exercise routine does not have to be of vigorous intensity. In fact, high-intensity activities should be avoided for diabetes management.

Regular to moderate exercise performed at least three times a week works in conjunction with medications and diet to manage diabetes by improving metabolism, reducing weight, and lowering blood sugar and blood pressure.

Strenuous exercises can actually release more glucose which raises blood sugar and increases insulin resistance and therefore should be avoided by diabetics.

Simple physical activities approved for diabetics include:

  • Walking 

  • Stretching 

  • Yoga 

  • Lunges

  • Tai chi

  • Chair exercises 

  • Low-impact aerobic exercises

  • Bicycling

  • Boxing

  • Light to moderate weight and strength training

Consider adding in components such as water aerobic exercises or simpler forms of exercise such as walking in a pool to provide significant resistance which will improve performance and vary the exercise routine. Stretching with resistance bands in or out of the water will also help improve fitness and well-being. 

Low-impact aerobic exercises, strength training, weight training, bicycling, boxing, and brisk walking are all great choices for those diabetics without physical challenges or restrictions who are looking for something a little more advanced than just walking or stretching.

If your loved one has not exercised regularly in a while, encourage them to start slow and build up strength and stamina. If your loved one has physical challenges or suffers from diabetic complications, simple walking or chair exercises can be quite effective. 

The use of a walker or cane will also help with safe movement and avoiding falls. Balance, strength, and endurance are important factors to pay attention to in order to avoid falls and prevent injury with physical activity.

Why is watching out for Hypoglycemia important?

Because exercise works with diet and medications to achieve glucose control, it’s important to check with your loved one’s healthcare provider before starting any exercise program. Learn about any restrictions or necessary precautions to take. 

Be aware of blood glucose levels at the start of the exercise routine, and monitor closely for any early warning symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) such as:

  • Pallor (pale)

  • Shakiness

  • Dizziness/lightheadedness

  • Confusion/irritability

  • Rapidly losing energy/fatigue

  • Hunger especially with nausea

Stop and check their blood glucose level and treat if you notice a hypoglycemic response. 

If your loved one exhibits symptoms of hypoglycemia, encourage your loved one to take blood glucose tablets or drink some orange juice and then eat some protein such as a cheese stick or hard-boiled egg to help prevent a sugar spike. Have your loved one sit to rest, recover and hydrate.


How can a Continuous Glucose Monitor help?

Exercise will help to lower blood sugar levels making it imperative to monitor for signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia. If your loved one has a continuous glucose monitor (cgm) such as the Dexcom or the FreeStyle Libre, this can be very helpful as the transmitter in the cgm will send a message to their receiver or smartphone to alert the drop in blood sugar sometimes even before symptoms present themselves. This can be a very helpful way to monitor blood sugar levels during exercise.

It is important for any diabetic to always keep blood glucose tablets with them and this is especially true when exercising. Hypoglycemia is a constant risk. If they use a cgm, they need to always keep the receiver or their smartphone with them as well. 

In the next few days, if your loved one continues to experience hypoglycemic symptoms and true low blood glucose levels, be sure to report this to their healthcare provider and discuss possible changes in diet, medications or exercise routine. It may be as simple as adjusting carbohydrates on exercise days.

Many diabetics are overweight, and according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), an important goal of diabetes management is weight reduction so that diabetes can be better managed. 

Reducing the stress and strain of obesity can greatly improve diabetes management.

Routine exercise or increasing physical activity from being mostly sedentary can help with weight loss, improved glucose control, and increased muscle mass. This will result in lower blood sugar levels. All three components are necessary. They work together and may require periodic adjustments to provide the best health benefits.


Encourage your Loved One to Exercise with Others

Exercise is less of a chore and more fun when doing it with someone else. Many senior centers and assisted living facilities offer planned activities to encourage physical activity. If your loved one lives in a senior center or assisted living facility, encourage them to partake in those activities.

If your loved one is living at home and you have children, it can also be a bonding opportunity for your children to complete an exercise routine with them. Rooting your loved one on and coaching them is a great first step. You can then step in and participate. 

Remember that holding their hand can provide stability and improve their level of confidence. Face your loved one and lead the exercise or work beside them. Encouragement is always welcome.

Moderate-intensity exercise also helps increase the endorphins in the brain and nervous system which will have positive effects such as improved mood, an increased feeling of well-being, and reduced experience of aches and pains. These hormones are composed of peptides that activate opiate receptors in the body which produce an analgesic effect.

Exercise also improves mobility and range of motion in all joints and provides improved balance, strength, and endurance.  

Contrary to some popular myths, exercise will not cure diabetes. There is no known cure. However, exercise is a vital component of diabetes management and will help to control blood glucose levels, prevent complications, and provide great health benefits.