A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Top tips for exercising with diabetes, nerve damage

badge icon of diabetic illustrationsEditor’s note: This is the final post in a series dedicated to celebrating the month of May as National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.  View all posts in this series.

If you have nerve damage and foot pain from diabetes, the thought of exercise might be overwhelming.

You shouldn’t overlook pain, fall risks and blisters, but nerve damage caused by diabetes doesn’t have to sideline you permanently, said family medicine and cardiology nurse practitioner Jacquelyn Draxler Rauth.

The link between diabetes and nerve damage

Uncontrolled diabetes can cause diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that leads to pain, tingling or numbness in the feet and legs, Rauth said.

Nerve damage can limit your ability to comfortably and safely participate in some types of physical activity.

Exercise safety tips

Good news – it’s possible to exercise safely if you have nerve damage caused by diabetes.

Here are some tips to help you keep moving.

  • Start slowly with five or 10 minutes of exercise. Make sure you can handle the workout you have planned and that it’s safe for you.
  • Exercise on an even surface. Don’t get tripped up by uneven ground or obstacles you can’t feel with your feet.
  • Wear comfortable, stable shoes.
  • Try low-impact activities like water aerobics, stationary recumbent bicycling or upper-body strength training.
  • Exercise around the same time each day to control your blood sugar levels.
  • Work out with a buddy who can help you if you get hurt or your blood sugar level drops.
  • Check your blood sugar level before and during your workout. Don’t exercise on an empty stomach, and bring juice or snacks.
  • Check your feet after you exercise for sores or blisters.

Exercise to control diabetes

Daily exercise keeps diabetes in check by regulating blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure levels, Rauth said.

“Exercise also helps to reduce risk for heart disease including stroke or heart attack,” Rauth said.

Patients with controlled diabetes are less likely to develop foot and leg problems.

Exercise also improves blood flow to the feet and legs, which helps fend off numbness and pain.

“The increased circulation with exercise decreases risk of nerve damage from diabetes,” Rauth said.

Higher blood sugar levels along with lack of exercise can lead not only to blood vessel damage, but also permanent nerve damage, she added.

If you already have nerve damage, exercise, along with medication and foot care, can keep your symptoms from getting worse.

Check out the other posts in our May fitness series

Week 3: Make exercise more fun with family

Week 2: Kids’ exercise: The key to building better bones

Week 1: Balance-building exercises for fall prevention

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