New approach to managing exercise in people with diabetic neuropathy

Dr Brooke Coombes is leading a study into how people suffering peripheral neuropathy can manage exercise.

A new Griffith University study will test a novel way to manage exercise for people suffering from diabetic neuropathy using digital technology, wearable devices and exercise counselling.

Diabetic neuropathy is one of the most common long-term complications of diabetes. Symptoms develop gradually and can be painful (e.g. aching, shooting pain or sensitivity to touch) or be painless (e.g. numbness).

Symptoms frequently interfere with walking, balance and coordination, making it harder for people with this condition to exercise.

The team, led by Dr Brooke Coombes, from Griffith University’s School of Allied Health Sciences, needs 20 people with diabetes-related peripheral neuropathy to complete the study, each of whom will receive a fitness watch valued at $200.

Participants must be able to attend four sessions at Griffith University’s Nathan campus over one month, and they must not be using a walking aid. They will also need a smartphone.

Due to the complexity of peripheral neuropathy, people with the condition are often not able to take part in exercise trials, so this is a unique opportunity.

“This is a chance for people who want to get active but find that pain or altered sensation in their feet interferes with their efforts,” Dr Coombes said.

Each session will last for two hours and includes input from exercise experts who will offer participants a range of exercises both in a gym and outside.

“We’ll be trying different types and intensities of exercises so that each person can see the effects on symptoms and what works best for them,” Dr Coombes said.

To keep track of their progress, volunteers will use a new science-based metric called Personal Activity Intelligence (PAI), which uses heartrate tracking to optimise the health effects of exercise.

“We’ll aim for volunteers to collect 100 PAI points a week,” Dr Coombes said. “It’s proven that PAI can extend life expectancy by an average of five years and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 25 per cent.”

Points are calculated by the PAI Connect phone app, which is downloaded for free.

Dr Coombes said that while most people with diabetes know that physical activity will help them, it is difficult for people with peripheral neuropathy to understand what types of exercise, pain and physical symptoms are safe.

“Generally, we’re told that if an exercise or the intensity of the exercise hurts, we should stop. That advice isn’t always right when it comes to peripheral neuropathy,” she said.

“For example, short bursts of high intensity exercise may be more tolerable for individuals who are unable to exercise for extended periods because of foot symptoms.”

Health and clinical psychologist Dr Nicola Burton, an expert in behavioural change, will also advise on adopting and then maintaining exercise after the 12-week study is completed.

More information.