In Canada, there are more than 11 million people living with diabetes or prediabetes. According to the Canadian Diabetes Report 2015, diabetes is on the rise these days. The rate has doubled since 1990 and by 2020, more than 1 in 3 Canadians will be diabetic or prediabetic.
Diabetes is a serious problem with complications which cause chronic kidney disease, stroke, anxiety, eye disease or blindness, erectile dysfunction in men and even nerve damage. The cost of the diabetic effects on our bodies and to our health system has been deemed an “Economic Tsunami“ by the Diabetes Report 2015. It’s best if we understand it and learn how to avoid it.
What is Diabetes and How to Reduce the Likelihood of Getting Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic disease where the body cannot produce insulin or the body cannot use the insulin properly. This is called insulin resistance or insulin insensitivity. This leads to high blood sugar levels or hyperglycemia which damage our organs, blood vessels and nerves. Many of us are already prediabetic which means we have a high level of blood sugar but not enough to be diabetic.
Type I Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is the form of diabetes where no or very little insulin is produced by the body. It’s an autoimmune disease and typically occurs during childhood or adolescence although some people acquire it when they are an adult. When people acquire it as an adult, it is called latent autoimmune diabetes in adults or LADA.
If you have type 1 diabetes, you must receive insulin in order to help manage diabetes. Managing your diet will help but without insulin, the body cannot use the glucose energy in the body so type 1 diabetics will always need insulin from an external source.
Type II Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is due to insulin resistance or insulin insensitivity. It can also be a lowered production of insulin. Even though there is insulin, the body is unable to take up sugar so it remains in the blood where it builds up and results in high blood sugar levels.
More than 90% of people who acquire diabetes have this type of diabetes. It’s managed through exercise, meal planning and diet as well as some external sources of insulin to assist in maintaining lower blood sugar levels.
Gestational Diabetes Mellitus
During pregnancy the baby grows and produces hormones which are usually easily managed by the amount of insulin produced by the mother. However in a small percentage of cases, this may not be the case and the mother has gestational diabetes. After the birth of the baby, the mother’s blood sugar level returns to pre-pregnancy levels.
However, gestational DM also puts these mothers at higher risk of future type 2 diabetes. Managing exercise, diet and meal planning are the keys to avoiding type 2 diabetes.
Without knowing it, you might be prediabetic. That means you have a high level of blood sugar. There’s no easy way to know unless you go for tests. The chances are increased that you might be prediabetic if you have high blood pressure, high LDL (bad) cholesterol or other metabolic syndromes. To find out if you do, see your doctor to get tested every three years.
Management of prediabetes is similar to type 2 diabetes. It’s managing our diet, getting enough exercise and especially as we age as these are risk factors to the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Aim for an Exercise Goal of 150 Minutes per Week
Let’s focus on exercise. Both Diabetes Canada and Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) advocate an exercise goal of 150 minutes per week. If you have diabetes, you may need to start at a more tangible goal of 10 minutes per day.
Wherever your starting point, the important thing is to start and make it a lifestyle habit. Once it becomes a regular habit, it will become a great way to stay young and healthful.
Tai chi is a great place to start because the movements are simple and provide huge physical health benefits. You can start if you are pregnant or if you feel you might be prediabetic. Nobody wants to experience the complications of diabetes.
Research on Tai Chi’s Effects on Diabetes
Medical News Today reviewed two small studies originally published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in April 2008 about the effects of tai chi on people with diabetes. We already know that tai chi improves respiratory and cardiovascular function while reducing stress and improving flexibility.
The first study was with 30 people with type 2 diabetes who took 12 weeks of a tai chi exercise program compared to 30 healthy people without diabetes. After 12 weeks, the researchers found that the level of glycated hemoglobin fell significantly. Glycated hemoglobin occurs when blood sugar levels are high and it combines with the hemoglobin in the blood to form glycated hemoglobin. The researchers also measured the immune system via T cells and Interleukin levels. During this period, they found that T cell activity increased. Helper T cells produce Interleukin 12 which boosts the immune system. Overall, they found that there was increased Interleukin 12 and increased Helper T cell activity.
A second study asked 13 people with metabolic syndromes to practice tai chi for 1.5 hours three times a week for 12 weeks. Metabolic syndromes include high blood pressure and high blood glucose levels which lead to cardiovascular disease or diabetes. The participants lost an average weight of 3kg. The participants ended up with a smaller waistline by 3 cm on average. Blood pressure fell significantly more than could be explained by exercise alone according to the authors. During the program, the participants reported that:
- they slept better,
- felt more energetic,
- experienced less pain and
- had fewer food cravings.
Amazingly, by the end of the study, 3 participants saw such significant improvements that they no longer met the criteria for having a metabolic syndrome.
While the studies are small, the results are significant and amazing. A year earlier in March 2007, another study was completed in Taiwan with similar results. It is known that high intensity exercises can temporarily decrease our immune system. So, the authors suggested a possible reason for the effectiveness of tai chi is the slower nature of the exercise.
Enjoying Tai Chi to Manage Diabetes
Even though tai chi is practiced slowly and does not trigger immunosuppression responses in the body such as the release of adrenaline or cortisol, it provides an effective workout. In fact, tai chi is known to reduce stress. A body which is more often in a rest and relax mode will spend more time metabolizing and digesting which is important to overall health. Tai chi is great for people who have metabolic syndromes as well as a variety of other health issues.
In addition, the pure enjoyment and calming effect of tai chi contributes to our body`s health and can improve the immune system. Its low intensity but highly invigorating workout is great for improving health, reducing stress and improving mood.