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Can Physical Therapy Help Manage Diabetes

Can Physical Therapy Help Manage My Diabetes?

by Brian Whittington, PT, DPT, CMTPTLeave a Comment

In 2019, 37.3 million Americans, or 11.3 % of the population, had diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes.  Diabetes is also a significant contributor to national healthcare costs. In 2017 the national cost of diabetes was more than $327 billion, up from $245 billion in 20121. Diabetes is the most expensive chronic condition to treat in the US, as $1 out of every $4 healthcare dollars is spent on care for people with diabetes2. Despite these staggering statistics, our nation’s diabetic future isn’t looking any brighter.

The CDC indicated that between the years 2005-2015, childhood type II diabetes increased by 4.8% per year3, and another study from a Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, saw a 6-fold increase in childhood type II diabetes in the 2-years during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the prior 2-years. Diabetes is a health crisis that needs increased attention across all healthcare providers and disciplines. It then seems appropriate to ask, “can physical therapy help manage my diabetes?”

What is Diabetes?

When food, particularly carbohydrates, is consumed, the body digests the food into sugar which is used as energy. This sugar, also known as glucose, is transported from the blood into cells by insulin. Diabetes affects the body’s ability to produce or use insulin, disrupting glucose transportation into cells.

In type I diabetes, which accounts for 5-10% of all cases4, the body does not produce sufficient amounts of insulin. The lack of insulin production limits glucose transportation into cells, and blood sugar levels can rise to dangerous levels.

In type II diabetes, which accounts for 90-95% of all cases4, the body does not properly regulate insulin. With ineffective transport of glucose into cells via insulin, blood sugar levels can rise to dangerous levels.

Thus, a primary issue for the diabetic is the impaired ability to transport glucose into cells but for different reasons. Either the lack of insulin production, in type I, or lack of insulin regulation, in type II.

How can Physical Therapy Help?

Diabetes is often managed by prescribed insulin therapy or engaging in nutritional practices to help control blood sugar levels. Yet exercises can also be an effective means of controlling blood sugar levels.

For both type I and type II diabetics, the positive effects of exercise are due to contracting muscle tissue when we move. Whether it’s walking, swimming, resistance training or other activities, it facilitates transporting glucose into cells when our muscles contract. As glucose is being moved into cells during exercise, this helps control blood sugar levels. Exercises are an effective intervention in delaying the onset of or preventing diabetes in high-risk populations5.

Physical therapists are experts in movement science and exercise prescription. A physical therapist can prescribe the correct exercise at the appropriate intensity for an individual with diabetes while considering other health-related issues that could affect exercises participation. A physical therapist can also address pain, weakness, flexibility, balance, or other impairments that may limit a person with diabetes from participating in exercises.

Physical therapists are uniquely positioned within the healthcare system to provide safe and effective exercise intervention for patients with diabetes due to their frequent weekly interactions that allow for proper intervention monitoring. Physical therapy is a cost-effective means of providing safe, appropriate, and educational exercise interventions that will enable optimal long-term outcomes as the patient transitions to self-directed physical activity as one means of caring for their diabetes. Those with diabetes or who are concerned they have diabetes are recommended to talk with their primary care physician to manage diabetes.

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

1. Statistics.” Statistics | ADA,
2. “Cost-Effectiveness of Diabetes Interventions.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 Mar. 2022,
3. Marks, Brynn E et al. “Increase in the Diagnosis and Severity of Presentation of Pediatric Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Hormone research in paediatrics vol. 94,7-8 (2021): 275-284. doi:10.1159/000519797
4. Deshpande, Anjali D., Marcie Harris-Hayes, and Mario Schootman. “Epidemiology of diabetes and diabetes-related complications.” Physical therapy 88.11 (2008): 1254-1264.
5. Deshpande, Anjali D., et al. “Physical activity and diabetes: opportunities for prevention through policy.” Physical therapy 88.11 (2008): 1425-1435.

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About the Author:
Brian Whittington is a physical therapist and regional director for Athletico. Brian is particularly interested in treating knee and shoulder injuries and specializes in post-operative ACL reconstruction rehabilitation. Brian's treatment focus also includes the growing patient population dealing with chronic pain. His practice philosophy is not limited to injury recovery but includes education for injury prevention and general health and wellness. Brian's mission is simple, keeping people moving so they can live optimally healthy lives.

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