If you’ve ever talked to your doctor or read an article about managing blood sugar levels, it’s likely you’ve heard that exercise plays an important role. One way to do that is to get out your yoga mat: Although any kind of movement can be useful, there is some research that shows that practicing yoga in particular for even a few minutes per day could potentially help keep your blood sugar levels closer to where you want them.
- Chhaya Makhija, MD, a board-certified endocrinologist and specialist in diabetes care
Why you want to keep your blood sugar in check
Quick science lesson: When we eat, some of that food gets broken down into glucose, which is then released into our bloodstream. When our blood sugar levels rise, our pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that allows the cells in our body to use that sugar for energy.
But if your body is constantly overloaded with too much sugar in your bloodstream, you can develop a condition called insulin resistance. In this case, your cells stop responding to insulin and you end up with too much sugar staying in your bloodstream. Over time, this can lead to a host of health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, vision loss, nerve damage and kidney disease. (One thing to note: Type 1 diabetes is not caused this way; rather, the pancreas simply stops making insulin, and no one is entirely sure why.)
Luckily, there are ways to potentially get ahead of blood sugar issues and type 2 diabetes, and one of them is through physical activity.
“There is robust data in people with diabetes that exercise or physical activity…improves insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control,” says Chhaya Makhija, MD, a board-certified endocrinologist, lifestyle medicine specialist, and founder of Unified Endocrine and Diabetes Care.
“For adults with diabetes, the recommendations from the American Diabetes Association are to engage in 150 minutes or more of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week spread out over at least three days per week, with no more than two consecutive days without activity.”
To be clear, exercise is not a replacement for taking insulin, and being active doesn't mean you no longer need to track your glucose levels. For people with type 1 diabetes, discontinuing insulin or failing to monitor your blood glucose can be life-threatening. Those with type 2 also need to monitor their glucose (especially when starting a new fitness routine) and take insulin if they've been prescribed it.
How yoga can benefit your blood sugar
Yoga is an ancient practice originating from Hinduism in India. Yoga “asana,” or postures, is typically what you’d practice in a yoga class at your local studio or gym. Asana is just one of the eight limbs of yoga, which includes others like meditation (dhyana), and breathwork (pranayama).
Traditionally, yoga is used as a tool to encourage union between the mind and body. So, unsurprisingly, many yoga postures and practices are known to be especially useful when it comes to managing certain health conditions.
A growing body of research shows that yoga may have some specific benefits for blood sugar management. One 2014 study including over 11,000 people found that just three months of a yoga-based lifestyle intervention was associated with remission of prediabetes and prevention of type 2 diabetes.
A 2018 review of studies found that practices like surya namaskar (sun salutations) were tied to lower blood sugar levels, likely because they improve your body's ability to use sugar for energy by improving muscular strength, flexibility, and endurance. Seated postures (like half lord of the fishes and frog pose) and forward bends were associated with better pancreatic function. The researchers concluded this was probably because these poses help massage the pancreas and stimulate the secretion of insulin.
The role of stress and mood
Managing stress is another key factor when it comes to blood sugar management. According to the 2018 review, psychological stress increases the risk and severity of type 2 diabetes by stimulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a hormonal pathway in the body that regulates processes like digestion, immunity, mood, and sexuality. Chronic activation of the HPA axis has been associated with poor blood sugar control and complications in people with diabetes, such as diabetic neuropathy.
This is another area in which yoga can be helpful. “Yoga is not just physical movement—it also includes breathing exercises called pranayama yoga, meditation, and the practice of mindfulness,” Dr. Makhija points out. “These practices have been shown to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system (calming nervous system) which helps us cope with psychological stress. Implementing positive healthy behaviors, improving social connection as well as connection to the self can have widespread health benefits in people with diabetes.”
How to get started
As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise plan to ensure it’s safe for you. But as long as you have the all-clear, the great news is that you don’t have to sweat on your mat for an hour to reap these benefits. The 2018 review showed that even just 10 minutes a day of yoga practice can have a positive effect on blood sugar and stress levels, and even reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and related complications, like hypertension and neuropathy.
You can start with 10 minutes per day of yoga asana (postures) like sun salutations, or mix up your favorite seated postures, forward bends, or twisting poses. Be sure to go at your own pace and modify any postures as needed. Or, simply begin with pranayama (breathing) exercises like alternate nostril breathing or chanting a mantra like “Aum.”
You can also follow along with this mood-boosting 15-minute flow:
Whichever practice (or combination of practices) you choose, remember that even carving out 10 minutes a day just to tune in to your body can be helpful. But it doesn't replace an insulin prescription, or careful glucose monitoring.
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