What Is Diabetes?
In diabetes, the body does not produce or properly use insulin. Produced by the pancreas, insulin is a hormone needed to allow glucose (sugar) to enter the cell and provide the energy necessary for daily activities. When the pancreas doesn’t produce adequate amounts of insulin, or when the muscle, fat and liver cells don’t respond to insulin properly, glucose builds up in the blood (hyperglycemia). This can be toxic to your cells. In addition, because of the reduced glucose uptake into the cells, they can use an abnormal amount of fats for fuel (ketoacidosis) and may become undernourished.
There are 3 main types of diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes – develops most often in children and young adults; the immune system destroys insulin-producing cells (beta cells) of the pancreas.
Type 2 diabetes – can develop at any age and can largely be preventable; the cells of the body become resistant to insulin, and the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to override the resistance.
Gestational diabetes – develops in women during pregnancy; it occurs more often in African Americans, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, and women with a family history of diabetes and also is associated with obesity and inactivity.
Although the exact cause of diabetes is unknown, factors such as obesity and lack of exercise play important roles in type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes can result in such conditions as:
High blood pressure
Nervous system disease (“neuropathy”)
Peripheral vascular disease
Skin problems, including ulcers and infections
Reduced muscle strength and physical function
In a condition called “pre-diabetes” or “insulin resistance,” blood sugar levels are normal or only moderately elevated and often are accompanied by elevated insulin levels but have not yet reached the diabetic stage. With pre-diabetes, you have a greater risk not only for diabetes but for heart attacks and strokes.
Signs and Symptoms
Diabetes symptoms include:
Constant or extreme hunger
Unexplained weight loss
High blood pressure
Frequent infections, such as gum or skin infections and vaginal or bladder infections
The onset of type 1 diabetes can occur quickly. If you have ketoacidosis, your cells are using abnormal amount of fats for fuel and may become undernourished to the point where you could lapse into a diabetic coma unless you receive insulin. The onset of type 2 diabetes typically develops more slowly, and you might not have any symptoms at all.
American Diabetes Association*
Recommended Measurements for Adults With Diabetes
Preprandial plasma glucose (before a meal) 70-130 mg/dl (5.0-7.2 mmol/l)
Postprandial plasma glucose (after a meal) <180 mg/dl (<10.0 mmol/l)
Blood pressure <130/80 mmHg
LDL <100 mg/dl (<2.6 mmol/l)
Triglycerides <150 mg/dl (<1.7 mmol/l)
HDL >40 mg/dl (>1.1 mmol/l) for men, >50 for women
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Physical activity, along with diet and medication, is a cornerstone of treatment for diabetes—and physical activity is a cornerstone for prevention of diabetes. If you already have diabetes, you know that you need to control your blood glucose (sugar), lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, maintain a healthy weight, and exercise to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Regular physical activity also can reduce your need for medications, particularly if you have pre-diabetes.
The American Diabetes Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days per week. Both aerobic and strength workouts are helpful. Your physical therapist will perform an evaluation, including a review of your medical history and medications, and develop an individualized exercise program.
Improve Your Blood Sugar Levels, Manage Your Weight, and Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease
Based on your health status, your physical therapist will prescribe aerobic exercise tailored to your needs:
“Moderate intensity” aerobic exercise, where your heart rate and breathing rate increase. You might perspire, but you can engage in a conversation. Examples: brisk walking, swimming, gardening, ballroom dancing.
“Vigorous” aerobic exercise, where you breathe rapidly and are able to speak in short phrases. Your heart rate increases substantially, and you perspire. Examples include jogging, hiking uphill, fast dancing, martial arts.
Your therapist likely will recommend physical activity at least 3 days per week, with no more than 2 days in a row without physical activity.
If you have type 2 diabetes, your physical therapist will prescribe “resistance” exercises (exercises with weights or elastic therapy bands), unless you have another medical condition that makes them unsafe. The goal usually is to do them 3 days per week; your therapist will determine a safe beginning weight and number of repetitions.
Your physical therapist also will help you manage exercise precautions:
If you have type 1 diabetes and high blood sugar levels (“hyperglycemia”) and if your blood glucose is more than 250 mg/dl, you need to check your urine for ketones before exercising. Ketones are made when the body breaks down fat for energy (“ketoacidosis”). If there are no ketones, you can exercise with caution. If there are ketones, you should not exercise vigorously. If you have type 2 diabetes, it isn’t necessary to postpone exercise for high blood glucose if you feel well and are well hydrated.
If you take insulin or pills that help the body produce more insulin, you should eat carbohydrates before exercise if your blood sugar is less than 100 mg/dl. You also should talk to your physical therapist about the timing of medications in relation to when you exercise.
If you have diabetic eye disease (retinopathy), your physical therapist will prescribe an exercise routine that takes into account the activity limitations recommended by your eye doctor (for instance, do only exercises with light weights).
If you have an active foot ulcer from diabetes, your physical therapist may advise you to do exercises that don’t require you to bear your own weight, such as bicycling.
If your sensation isn’t as good as it should be in your feet or if you have peripheral neuropathy, you can still do weight-bearing exercise. Recent research has shown that these problems do not increase the risk of skin breakdown. Careful daily inspection of the feet in people with diabetes is always strongly recommended.
Other diabetes-related conditions may require that you undergo cardiac testing prior to increasing your physical activity. Your physical therapist can work with you to identify concerns and create exercise routines that are safe.
Always see a physical therapist to help you with physical activity if you have:
Pain in your joints or muscles
Numbness or tingling in your feet
Calluses or sores on your feet
Pain or limping with walking
Used an assistive device such as a cane or crutches
Had a stroke
Questions about what type of exercise is best for you
When You Have Complications
If your diabetes isn’t being managed well, it can lead to problems in blood vessels and nerves, often in the legs. Low blood flow to the legs can cause cramping pain when walking or lead to skin breakdown (ulcers, sores) on the legs or feet. Diabetes can affect the nerves, which can result in tingling in the feet and may progress to complete numbness. This numbness can mask any damage to the skin or joints because you don’t feel pain in the normal way. These problems can lead to difficulty with daily activities, limit your ability to exercise, and also harm your overall health. If these problems occur, physical therapists can:
Use special tests to check the sensation in your feet
Help decrease your cramping pain during walking
Evaluate and care for skin ulcers and sores that are slow to heal
Improve your walking ability by adapting shoes or orthoses
Show you how to protect your feet if they have lost sensation