If you’re managing type 1 diabetes or have a loved one affected by the condition, you know that glycemic control can be a huge challenge. At times, it may seem like the slightest changes to your routine can throw your blood sugar completely out of whack. Insulin, food, and exercise all impact the control you have over this chronic condition. With proper planning and monitoring, however, adding physical activity to your routine can actually help to control your glycemic levels over time. And walking is one of the easiest and practical activities to fit in on a day-to-day. Read on to learn what the research says about walking for people with type 1 diabetes and some ways you can be safe and prepared as you make time for your daily strolls.
Researchers have found that even low-intensity physical activity, such as light walking, has the capacity to improve hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and promote health—both in healthy individuals and those with type 1 diabetes. In a study published in the medical journal, Diabetes Care, 12 healthy individuals and 12 people with type 1 diabetes were observed. Researchers measured participants’ glucose concentrations with glucose monitors as they alternately ate meals and remained inactive or ate meals and took a short walk. Glucose excursions for people with type 1 diabetes were 7.5 mmol/L/270 min following walking interventions compared to 18.4 mmol/L/270 min following periods of inactivity. Healthy subjects’ glucose excursions also improved after walking. These results show that short bouts of walking significantly improve postprandial glucose excursions, working to lower numbers in both the populations studied.
In a separate 2016 study published in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 10 individuals with type 1 diabetes participating in the world’s largest walking event were followed on a non-walking day prior to the event and on three walking days during the event. Researchers took measurements of participants’ 24-hour glycemic control through continuous glucose monitoring. At the end of the study, researchers determined that “Prolonged walking exercise allows for profound reductions in daily insulin administration in persons with type 1 diabetes.” Taking into account the extra energy expenditure and carbohydrate intake required for such a long walking event like this, one would expect that participants’ glycemic control might be sacrificed through this activity. But, in fact, researchers found just the opposite—the increase in exercise and carbs did not impair glycemic control.
If these studies inspire you to lace up those sneakers, keep these important safety tips in mind before you hit the road:
- Account for adjustments. Be sure to modify your diabetes self-care regimen when increasing your activity level. You may need to adjust your insulin dose or boost your carbohydrate intake, for example.
- Check, double check, and triple check. As you take up a walking routine, it’s crucial that you check your blood sugar levels before, during, and after your first few walks. Learn how different time intervals and walking paths affect your body differently. You may find that some paths/trails cause your blood sugar to drop quickly while others do not.
- Grab a snack. It’s always a good idea to have a healthy snack on hand before heading out on a stroll. If your blood sugar drops during your walk, you will be armed with an apple, banana, or granola bar to help get it under control fast. You may also choose to bring a small box of juice or glucose tablets with you—try using a fanny pack or travel purse to store your goodies.
- Don’t do it if it’s dangerous: As you probably know, high blood sugar before exercise can be incredibly dangerous for you. Avoid walking completely if your blood sugar exceeds 250 mg/dl as this can increase your risk of ketoacidosis (a life-threatening condition caused by a lack of insulin in the blood).
You will also want to load up on water before, during, and after your stroll and engage in five minutes of warm-up and cool-down activities, such as leg lifts or gentle yoga stretches. Finally, be sure you are wearing comfortable, supportive shoes with moisture-wicking socks to protect your sensitive feet.
The National Institutes of Health recommends that those managing type 1 diabetes get 150 minutes of exercise each week. If your condition prevents you from fitting this much activity into your routine, rest assured that emerging research shows that even as little as 15 minutes of walking each day can boost your longevity. If you can’t break away from your family or the weather isn’t cooperating, keep in mind that walking isn’t your only option. Attending to basic household activities, such as dishes, sweeping, or giving the kids a bath immediately following a meal has the same potential health benefits as a walk. So get up and get active after mealtimes to better manage your diabetes—your blood sugar will surely thank you.
Manhoar C, Levine JA, Nandy DK, Saad A, Dalla Man C, McCrady-Spitzer SK, Basu R, Cobelli C, Carter RE, Basu A, Kudva YC. The effect of walking on postprandial glycemic excursion in patients with type 1 diabetes and healthy people. Diabetes Care. 2012;35(12):2493-2499. doi:10.2337/dc11-2381.
van Dijk JW, Eijsvogels TM, Nyakayiru J, Schreuder TH, Hopman MT, Thijssen DH, van Loon LJ. Glycemic control during consecutive days with prolonged walking exercise in individuals with type 1 diabetes mellitus. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2016;117:74-81.
Cleveland Clinic. 5 best exercises for people with diabetes. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2014/06/5-best-exercises-for-people-with-diabetes/. Updated June 2014. Accessed January 12, 2018.
American Diabetes Association. Exercise and type 1 diabetes. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/fitness/exercise-and-type-1-diabetes.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/. Updated April 2015. Accessed January 12, 2018.