Exercising is an important part of a diabetes treatment plan but can be difficult when you’re experiencing extreme fatigue.
Exercise has never been a way of life for Denise Baron. But after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes two years ago, Baron now finds a way to make fitness a part of her day.
“For me, exercising is never on my top three things to do in life, but nowadays it’s a requirement,” the 49-year old tells Healthline.
Like millions of other people who live with type 2 diabetes, Baron now understands the role exercise plays in managing her symptoms. That said, she’s also familiar with “diabetes fatigue,” a common effect of the condition that can make it challenging to stick with a consistent workout program.
Dealing with type 2 diabetes can feel taxing. And when you’re tired all the time, just getting through the day is often all you can manage. Unfortunately, getting more sleep isn’t necessarily the right answer.
“Excessive feelings of tiredness or fatigue are commonly associated with diabetes, but the causes may be multifactorial,” explains Sheri Colberg, PhD, FACSM, and Professor Emerita of Exercise Science.
“The most common cause is the rise in blood glucose levels, which can make you feel sluggish and lethargic,” she explains. And she should know. In addition to helping others, Colberg also lives with diabetes.
Colberg also points out that people may experience fatigue as the result of some diabetes-related complications, such as kidney disease, or as a side-effect of some medications.
It’s no secret that regular exercise is key in managing and preventing several health-related conditions including type 2 diabetes. In fact, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends physical activity to all people living with diabetes to manage glycemic control and overall health.
In particular, the ADA urges people living with diabetes to interrupt long periods of sitting with light activity by doing 3 minutes of light exercise (like stretches or walking) every 30 minutes.
While this recommendation tops the list of ways to manage and treat diabetes, exercising when you’re experiencing diabetes fatigue is often easier said than done.
“Fatigue is common among people with diabetes, which can make it difficult to work up the motivation and energy to stay physically active,” explains Dr. Emily Schroeder, an endocrinologist with Kaiser Permanente in Denver.
However, exercise is a crucial part of diabetes management. Schroeder says it’s vital that patients come up with ways to integrate exercise into their daily routines.
Once you establish a routine, you can gradually increase that activity up to 30 minutes a day — or more — as your body becomes accustomed to it.
The first thing to keep in mind, says Colberg, is that doing any physical activity is likely to help you feel better and less tired, even if it’s just taking more daily steps. “Physical movement doesn’t have to be structured exercise sessions to lower your blood glucose or make you feel better in the short run,” she explains.
Colberg recommends you start by standing up more, breaking up your sedentary time frequently (by standing, walking around, stretching, or doing any activity for a few minutes every 30 minutes or so), and just moving more all day long.
Once the diabetes fatigue starts to lift from doing these activities, you may feel more like engaging in exercises like walking, resistance training, or dancing.
As an endocrinologist, Schroeder has extensive experience working with type 2 diabetes and diabetes fatigue. When talking with patients about exercise, she gives them the following advice:
- Set smaller goals and build up from there. “If you start out thinking you need to hit the gym for hours every day to stay fit, you’re more likely to give up before you’ve even begun,” she says. Instead, challenge yourself to work out in small increments. For example, you can walk for 10 minutes, three times a day, to get the recommended 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise.
- Don’t go it alone. Join a class or make plans to exercise with a friend. “It’s much harder to let fatigue talk you out of a workout when you have a fitness buddy waiting for you or you’ve already committed to participating in a class,” says Schroeder.
- Try activities that do double duty. Activities like gardening can be great exercise — not to mention a good way to get some fresh air. Schroeder also says to consider chores such as vacuuming the house for 15 minutes (which can burn up to 90 calories). “Embracing exercise that also checks items off your to-do list can provide twice the motivation to get active,” she says.
- Monitor your blood sugar. Some individuals may need to monitor their blood sugar before, during, and after exercise. Schroeder says exercise will be easier if your blood sugar is in the normal range. In addition, exercise can cause low blood sugars. That’s why you need to talk with your physician about ways to keep your blood sugar in the normal range during and after exercise.
- Start slow, but aim to build up to the recommended 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise.
Dr. Pamela Merino, a TopLine MD internist certified in obesity and lifestyle medicine, says some forms of exercise may be better than others if you’re dealing with diabetes fatigue. She recommends starting small and slow with physical activity.
Even committing to five minutes can make a difference. She recommends tai chi (since it incorporates healthy breathing, balance, and strengthening), water exercises, yoga, walking, and seated exercises.
And if you’re not ready for fitness activities outside of your home, Schroeder says there are still exercises you can do at home to help increase your physical activity. Here are some movements she recommends to her patients:
- Keep some hand weights under the couch to fit in a few bicep curls while you binge the latest “House Hunters” marathon. It’s so easy and beneficial.
- Stand up and march in place during commercial breaks. In the average hour of television, that’s 15 minutes of movement.
- Do leg lifts in bed. Before you get up in the morning, spend a few minutes lying flat on your back, slowing raising and lowering one leg at a time. Try two sets of 10 repetitions per leg to get your blood flowing and start the day with more energy.
- Try abdominal crunches. These are also easy to do in bed, and there are many variations to try that can keep them interesting and challenge different muscle groups.
Depending on your starting fitness level and medical conditions, it’s important to work with a doctor or trainer in developing a plan that’s right for you.
When it comes to working with a professional, Baron agrees it’s helpful to seek information from experts in the fitness field.
She now lives an Ayurvedic lifestyle, which she says changed her life for the better. Her physical activity consists of daily walks and bicycle rides every morning for 20 to 40 minutes, stretching every day, and occasionally some gentle yoga.
”My suggestion to those with type 2 diabetes is to find something you love to do and do it often,” says Baron.
Make sure to speak with your doctor before starting an exercise program. They can help you determine the most effective way to manage diabetes fatigue so you can incorporate physical activity into your day.
Sara Lindberg, BS, M.Ed, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.