Exercise and Diabetes

Active Adult ExerciseThere are 20.8 million people in the U.S. living with diabetes and if Dr. Sonja Maddox had her way they would all be doing one thing along with the rest of us who’d like to prevent onset of the disease: exercise.

Maddox, who is a Family Medicine physician at Pacific Medical Center in Renton, said people should think about exercise as “medicine”. “If you exercise and you don’t have diabetes it can help prevent the disease. If you have diabetes and exercise regularly it will lower your blood pressure, lower blood sugars, and can even prevent the need for medication for a long period of time,” she said. Exercise also helps control weight and prevents heart disease which is a common effect of diabetes.

Maddox sees many patients with diabetes each month. She says that when a person is diagnosed with diabetes they generally fall into one of two camps. One group of patients is very motivated to control the disease and minimize the need for oral medication or insulin. They control their weight and their blood sugar with diet and exercise. While they may eventually find there is a need for oral medication or insulin, delaying that need also means delaying the ravaging effects of diabetes on the heart and vascular system.

Those in the other camp sometimes get the diagnosis and wait months or longer before seeking treatment and taking action.

“The reason to work hard—to eat properly and exercise—can mean having diabetes for 30 years as opposed to 40 or 50 years. The longer you have the disease the greater the likelihood you’ll develop retinopathy, nephropathy or heart disease,” she said.

Of the 20.8 million people who have diabetes 6.2 million have the disease but haven’t been diagnosed. Should you be screened for diabetes? Maddox says “yes” if you’re overweight, have a family history of the disease, or had gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops during pregnancy but goes away after the baby is delivered). “Gestational diabetics have a fifty percent chance of getting diabetes later in life,” she said.

Maddox said the benefits of exercise can be reaped without doing a triathlon or running a marathon. In fact, even jogging isn’t necessary. “Most people can walk and enjoy it.” Walking between 6,000 and 10,000 steps daily is an attainable goal for most people and it’s the best type of exercise because it’s available to everyone. For people with mobility problems, water aerobics is a great alternative.

In addition to the diabetes connection, exercise also helps patients with mild and moderate depression. Maddox said one study showed that exercise competes with medication for being effective treatment for depression.

A healthful diet is also part of the equation. Maddox advises patients to shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the packaged and processed goods often found in the middle. She said patients will guess that it takes a half hour to walk off the calories from a glazed doughnut but really, she said, but in reality it would take one to two hours of walking to burn those calories.

Her final word on the subject is that medicine only works so well for so long. The more weight a person gains, the less well the medicine will work over time. Getting daily exercise is a health strategy for everyone, but especially for people with diabetes.

Dr. Sonja Maddox is a board certified family medicine physician at Pacific Medical Centers in Renton. Dr. Maddox received her medical degree from the University of Washington and did her residency at Swedish, Providence Family Medicine. Click here to learn more about Dr. Maddox.