Helping People with Diabetes Get Moving in the Right Direction Through Physical Therapy

What is Diabetes?  Diabetes is a condition in which a person’s body does not properly produce or use insulin. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, is necessary for glucose to enter the cell and be converted to energy to perform daily activities.  Since glucose is produced from the majority of foods that we eat, when a person has diabetes and is unable to properly break it down, these sugars build up in their blood.  This may lead to serious health complications including heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, reduced muscle strength, sensation issues, and lower-extremity amputations.  Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

There are three categories of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational.  Type 1, previously known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes, is typically diagnosed in children and young adults.  In type 1, the body does not have the ability to produce enough insulin, reducing the amount of glucose that can enter cells for energy.  Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes, often referred to as hyperglycemia or insulin resistant diabetes.  In individuals with type 2, their glucose levels rise above normal.  At first, the pancreas produces extra insulin to compensate, but eventually it is unable to maintain the work output and cannot make enough insulin to keep their blood glucose levels normal.  Gestational diabetes occurs in women who are pregnant and have never had diabetes prior to pregnancy.  During pregnancy, the placenta produces hormones that may cause a buildup of sugar in the mother’s blood.  If the mother’s pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin to handle the excess sugar, her blood glucose levels will rise.   

Physical therapists are extensively trained to evaluate and assess pre-diabetic and diabetic patients. They are able to design individualized exercise programs that will improve their quality of life and reduce risk factors.  Often, people wish to exercise, but they don’t know where to begin or what their limit is.  Physical therapists have a great understanding of the body as a whole, being able to design safe and effective exercise programs based on each individual person.  These programs will include aerobic exercise, strength training, flexibility enhancement, and balance training to cover all the bases.

No matter what type of diabetes an individual suffers from, one action proven to help is exercise. The American Diabetes Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days per week, but no more than 2 consecutive days.  Moderate intensity exercises are described as intense enough to make you perspire and raise your heart rate, but still engage in conversation.  Aerobic exercises allow your body to use insulin more efficiently while relieving stress, improving your heart, and promoting blood circulation.  Strength training 2 days per week can also lower your blood glucose levels by maintaining strong muscle and bones.  Strong muscles improve one’s ability to burn calories even while at rest.  Think about it, your heart is a muscle!

Physical therapists are also equipped to treat areas that may have pain or sensory issues such as numbness and tingling.  Along with providing appropriate exercises, physical therapists perform manual therapy techniques that help relieve pain.  Assistive devices are often used to aid with walking as a result of pain, a sore on the foot, or post-stroke symptoms resulting from diabetes.  Physical therapists can help improve your strength and balance in order to make your walking pattern more safe and efficient.

There is always a way to make time to better your health and exercise.  Here are some helpful tips to get you started on a daily basis: get up once per hour and walk; moving helps maintain an appropriate blood glucose level.  If you have the option to take the stairs instead of an elevator, climb away! Use speakerphone; you can pace while on the phone.  Get involved in sporting events and play dates with your kids in the neighborhood.  When doing homework or watching television, stop for a few minutes and stretch.  If you’re taking public transportation, get off a stop early and walk; it will start your day off right. These are simple ways of fitting in exercise without taking time away from responsibilities and life.  

The impact that physical therapy can have on diabetic individuals is significant. Every case is unique, and physical therapists are best suited for tailoring specific plans to help each individual. With November being American Diabetes Month, now is as good a time as any to seek a physical therapist to help get moving in the right direction.

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