If you have diabetes and want to meet some fitness goals, the warm summer season might be a great time to move exercise to the top of your to-do list. Physical activity can help manage your blood sugar, so talk to your doctor and ask if a prescription for exercising is right for you.
“High blood sugar damages vessel walls,” says Jennifer Smith, RD, and a certified diabetes educator in Madison, Wisconsin, who has lived with type 1 diabetes for over a decade, “I think of it like rust on a car.” Exercise, however, may help by lowering your blood sugar and improving insulin sensitivity. “Going out for just a twenty- to thirty-minute walk causes your muscles to crave sugar,” she says. “It’s as though doors on your muscle cells open up so sugar can enter and get burned as energy.”
“The key is to act now!” says Smith. “It doesn’t get any easier to start an exercise program if you put it off. Instead, make a commitment right now and take your first steps toward a healthier body today!”
Little Steps to Get Started
Pick one of Smith’s suggestions below and do it today, tomorrow, and the next day, just to get in the habit of moving more. From there, you can increase the duration or add another tip. Be sure to talk to your doctor before making changes in your physical activities.
Take a 5-minute walk. Do it during lunch, on your coffee break, after dinner, when you’re out running errands, or while waiting for your kids’ practice to be over. “If you’re sedentary and not used to doing anything, that would be a huge improvement,” says Smith.
Try active television-watching. “Walk in place while you watch your favorite TV show,” suggests Smith. “You can sit during the commercials, but keep moving while the action unfolds. Start with a half-hour show. Even if you can only manage to walk for part of the episode, it’s worth it. Over time, you’ll be able to do more.”
Swear off the elevator… and the escalator too! Take the stairs instead. If you work or live several stories up, go ahead and use the elevator, but get off several floors before your destination and hoof it. “Do it regularly, and you’ll be amazed at how many more stairs you can climb without huffing and puffing,” says Smith. Again, check with your doctor before you plan to modify your level of exercise.
Stop driving around for the closest parking space. “You’ll save gas and burn more calories by snagging the often-empty spots at the back of the lot,” adds Smith.
Chat on the go. Suggests Smith, “When you’re talking on the phone, don’t sit down! At the very least, stand; even better, walk around.”
Building up to Fitness
“While little steps are a good way to get started, more activity can be a good goal when it comes to managing your blood sugar. One of the benefits of more exercise can be weight loss,” says Smith. “Weight management can change the way the body responds to food. It can impact your metabolism positively, and help you to have better blood sugars.” So what are you waiting for?
When most people think of “exercise,” they often think of walking, running, cycling, or swimming – cardio types of activity that get your heart pumping fast. Cardio is great, but exercise to build strength is just as important. Strength builders include lifting small weights (sometimes called dumbbells), using resistance bands (stretchy bands that you pull against), or doing body-weight exercises such as push-ups and squats. In fact, research shows that the combination of these two types of routines results in better blood sugar control than if you do either one solo. Again, be sure to check with your doctor before modifying your level of physical activity.
Make it a Habit
Smith has great tips for making exercise a habit. First, she says, get a sense of what you’re aiming for and then see how you can schedule (or sneak!) it in. As an example, you might consider the following:
At least 150 minutes a week of cardio exercise, or just under three hours. Not bad for a whole week! Think how much time you spend watching TV or on the computer. “Take a moment to pull out your calendar and see where you might have time,” suggests Smith. “Divvy it up any way you want, as long as you’re exercising at least three days a week. You could do fifty minutes three days a week, thirty minutes five days a week, or twenty-two minutes daily. You don’t have to do it all in one shot, either. You can break your exercise sessions into ten- to fifteen-minute bouts done several times throughout the day.
Two or three days of strength training that hits all your major muscle groups. Work up to doing two or three sets of ten to twelve repetitions of each exercise – usually three to four exercises for each major group, such as arms or legs. You can find exercise routines at a gym or even through videos online. “Resistance bands are one of my favorite strength training tools,” says Smith, who suggests this activity as a great place to start.
Now that you know what your exercise goal is, try Smith’s tips to make that goal achievable and make activity a healthy habit:
Check with your doctor before beginning or changing an exercise program. Everybody – and every body – is different, so check with a doctor who can let you know if you need to take any special precautions when exercising.
Monitor your blood sugar. Activity affects people differently, so having this data will help you to adjust meals and medication to prevent your blood sugar from getting too low. “Seeing your blood sugar numbers improving over time with exercise can be a big motivator, too,” says Smith.
Find something you enjoy doing. “I don’t tell people to run if they hate running because they won’t stick with it,” says Smith. “There are so many types of exercise that there’s something for everyone. Think about what you enjoyed as a child. If you were an avid bike rider, try an indoor cycling class or rent a bike and explore local trails. If dancing was your thing, check out different classes or sign up for ballroom dancing lessons. Try exercise DVDs that you can do in your living room.
Recognize your limitations. But don’t let them define you! “If you have mobility or joint issues, exercising in a pool may be a better option than on land,” says Smith. “You don’t have to know how to swim to get great exercise in the water. Try an aqua aerobics class – most are done in the shallow part of the pool, or you can use a flotation device for deep-water classes. Or simply walk or jog laps. Water’s buoyancy reduces impact for a joint-friendly fitness session.”
Get a fitness buddy. “Turning exercise into a social activity can keep you coming back for more,” says Smith. “And making a commitment to exercise with others can help motivate you when you need it most. Try finding walkers in your neighborhood or inviting a co-worker out for an afternoon stroll. You’ll be more likely to stick with your new exercise plan if you’re accountable to someone. Other options are classes at a health club, YMCA, or community center.”
Schedule your activity. “Actually put them in your calendar like a doctor’s appointment,” suggests Smith. “If you leave fitting in your exercise to chance, you’ll be less likely to do it because something else always comes up. Instead, treat your activity like an important appointment that you’d only miss for something urgent.”
Make it easy to succeed. Morning exercisers should put their clothes out the night before. If you exercise after work, take your clothes to work with you and hit the gym or get your walk or run in before you get home and settled for the evening.
Mix up your activity. Boredom can be an enticing excuse to skip exercise. To keep your activity fun and interesting, try different types. Take a yoga class. Meet a friend to play tennis. Go for a hike in the woods. If you have a favorite activity like walking, running, or cycling, find different routes to keep you motivated. For example, climb some hills, explore another neighborhood, or hit a park trail.
Take care! Exercise is a terrific step in moving toward a healthier lifestyle, but some sensible precautions can help keep you active and safe:
- Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace.
- Carry a carbohydrate snack in case your blood sugar drops too low.
- Drink plenty of water because dehydration can adversely affect blood sugar levels.
Michele Stanten is a certified fitness instructor and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Shape, More, and other magazines. She is also on the Board of Directors for the American Council on Exercise. Michele lives in Coopersburg, PA, with her husband, two children, and two cats. Stanten is a paid contributor for the The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience