Stretching exercises can help prevent exercise-related injuries and may even improve blood sugar levels. Find out more about the benefits of stretching and get tips to stretch safely.
Although aerobic activity and strength training are frequently cited as important exercises for diabetes, stretching doesn’t tend to get as much attention. But whether it’s by participating in a yoga class or practicing at home on a mat, stretching exercises can help youmanage diabetes and reduce your risk of complications.
Stretching your muscles regularly not only helps prevent exercise-related injuries, but it can also improve flexibility and range of motion, which are common problems in people with type 2 diabetes, and increase blood flow to muscles. In addition, new research suggests stretching exercises may play a role in lowering unhealthy blood sugar levels.
Benefits of Stretching for Diabetes
Stretching is an essential part of an exercise program for everyone — yet there are some benefits of stretching that specifically relate to diabetes. A study in theJournal of Physiotherapy concludes 20 minutes of stretching may lower blood sugar levels both in people with type 2 diabetes and those at risk of it. In the study, participants did 40 minutes of upper- and lower-body stretching after eating a meal. The results showed that glucose (blood sugar) levels were reduced by an average of 28 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) midway through the stretching session and 24 mg/dL after the full 40 minutes.
Though more research is needed to confirm these glucose-lowering benefits, stretching has other proven health benefits. “We know that diabetes itself can decrease range of motion and flexibility,” explains Guy Hornsby, Jr., PhD, director of the Human Performance Lab and associate professor of human physiology at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “People with type 2 diabetes may not have good flexibility, but simple stretching exercises can help overcome that.”
Stretching can also improve balance and prevent falls. Falls among older adultsare a major cause of injury and disability. That makes injury prevention one of the biggest benefits of stretching, says Jane K. Dickinson, RN, PhD, CDE, a diabetes educator and coordinator of the masters of science in diabetes education and management program at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. “If a person with type 2 diabetes falls and gets injured, they may have to stop exercising for a while, and that’s a scenario we don’t want,” Dickinson says.
How to Stretch Safely
Dr. Hornsby says that stretching exercises should be done after the muscles have had a chance to warm up with a little mild-to-moderate activity — for example, after 5 to 10 minutes of mild walking or at the end of the workout. Never stretch before a workout, when the muscles are cold and most susceptible to injury.
“Stretching should lengthen the muscle to the point of mild discomfort, but as soon as you reach that point, stop and hold the pose for 10 to 15 seconds and keep breathing while you are doing it,” says Hornsby. “Don’t bob up and down or try to reach the stretch longer.”
Also, whether you stretch in a class or by yourself, remember that no stretching exercise should hurt.
Finding Stretching Exercises You Enjoy
Although group classes that emphasize stretching — like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi— have not been studied specifically in people with diabetes, Hornsby says they are proven to improve flexibility and balance.
Other options for stretching in a class setting include aquatic exercise classes. “Most water or aquatic exercise programs have also been shown to help flexibility,” he says. Hornsby adds that exercising in a pool is especially good for people who are overweight or obese because the buoyancy of water removes the extra burden of body weight and makes it easier to exercise, while reducing the chance of injury.
If you prefer stretching on your own, Hornsby recommends doing about 5 to 10 minutes or more of stretching focusing on the large muscles used in the activities you usually do, such as the hamstring and calf muscles in the legs if you’re a walker. Typically, you’ll hold each stretch for about 15 seconds before releasing.
To stretch your hamstring muscles, place one leg in front of you with the foot flexed. Bend the other knee and lean back a little. Keep your body upright and your back straight, not curved, as you hold the stretch. Feel the stretch in the back of the extended leg.
To stretch your calf muscles, place your hands evenly against a wall and lean forward, placing one leg in front of the other. Bend your front knee and straighten your back leg as you press your heel to the floor. Feel the stretch from your calf down to your heel.
To stretch your shoulders, gently pull one elbow across your chest toward the opposite shoulder; repeat with the other shoulder. Hornsby says that shoulder injuries are common among people with diabetes and recommends stretching exercises like this to loosen the shoulders.
If you’re not sure on how to get started or what would be the best stretches for you, talk to your doctor or work with a physical therapist or fitness trainer who can map out an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stretching exercises are a great way to complement your other exercises for diabetes and they only take a few minutes a day to reap the benefits.