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Don't Let Nerve Pain Keep You on the Sidelines

Regular exercise is an important part of controlling your diabetes. That doesn't change just because you have peripheral neuropathy. This is the nerve damage that high blood sugar causes. But, if you do have peripheral neuropathy, you may have to take special precautions to stay in the exercise game.

Reap the benefits of working out

Physical activity keeps your weight and cholesterol down. It also helps your blood sugar stay in check. Your nerve damage is less likely to progress when these factors are in control.

When you have diabetes and neuropathy, your chances of falling are higher than normal. Fortunately, exercises that improve your strength and balance can counter this risk. What's more, regular physical activity:

  • Reduces your risk for heart disease and stroke

  • Helps you maintain your ability to do everyday tasks

  • Prevents and helps manage other diabetes complications, including kidney and eye problems

Experts recommend that people with diabetes get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. This activity should be spread over at least three days per week, with no more than two days in a row without exercise. Adults with type 2 diabetes should also be encouraged to engage in resistance training exercises at least twice per week, unless there are other health reasons not to do so. Moderate activities include:

  • Brisk walking

  • Biking slower than 10 miles per hour

  • Gardening

  • Ballroom dancing

  • Water aerobics

Exercising with peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy, or diabetes-related nerve damage, can affect your arms, legs, hands, and feet. You'll usually develop symptoms first in your feet or legs. You might feel numbness, burning, pain, or tingling.

This type of neuropathy can make it harder to control your movements. It also can mask the pain of an injury, especially to your feet. Protect your feet or legs during exercise by:

  • Wearing the proper shoes for your activity and making sure they fit well. Shoes with soles made of gel or air can reduce the impact on your feet.

  • Changing your socks before and after you sweat. Consider polyester or polyester-cotton blend varieties to reduce blister risk.

  • Being consistent with your activity level—for instance, walking for the same amount of time each day. One study found this might reduce your chances of getting ulcers on your feet.

  • Checking your feet carefully before and after exercise. Look for blisters or other signs of injury or infection.

Always talk with your doctor before beginning an exercise program. If your neuropathy is severe, he or she might advise activities where you're not supporting your body weight. These might include biking, swimming, rowing, and arm exercises, instead of running or walking.

Exercising with autonomic neuropathy

Sometimes, nerve damage also affects involuntary actions in your body. This is called autonomic neuropathy. Symptoms include problems with your bladder, digestive troubles, and difficulty with sexual activity. It may also impair your cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and the nerves connected to your eyes.

Because it affects your heart and blood pressure, you might find that moving quickly feels more difficult with autonomic neuropathy. Talk with your doctor before beginning a new exercise plan, or if you're having trouble with your current workouts. You might be more comfortable with lower-intensity activities.

Once you've cleared your plan with your health care team, remember these tips:

  • Cool down after working out. This can help to keep your blood pressure from dropping too low.

  • Tell your doctor if you feel dizzy during or after activity.

  • Avoid exercising in very hot or cold weather. Your body may have trouble keeping its temperature constant. And drink plenty of fluids, especially before you begin.

  • Don't gauge your effort by your heart rate. Instead, go by how hard you feel you're working. In the moderate zone, you should be able to talk but not sing during your activity. 

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