If you have diabetes, your doctor may have been telling you for ages: You need to exercise more. Physical activity helps control blood sugar and cuts your risk of heart problems and other diabetes complications. But knowing that you’re supposed to exercise doesn’t make it easier to do it.
On top of the problems that everybody has sticking to an exercise plan — busy schedules, families, work — diabetes itself creates barriers to staying fit. Diabetes complications such as nerve damage, foot problems, eye disease, and fatigue can all make exercise harder.
What can you do? How can someone with diabetes who’s never liked exercise much start getting fit? Here are some exercise ideas for people with diabetes, no matter what shape they’re in.
DIABETES AND EXERCISE: HOW MUCH AND WHY?
According to experts, people with diabetes should ultimately aim for:
150 minutes or more of aerobic exercise each week. Studies have shown that regular physical activities such as aerobic exercise can make insulin work better, lower blood sugar, and may reduce the risk of diabetes complications such as heart attacks. Brisk walks, biking, tennis, or anything else that gets your heart rate up are great.
2 to 3 sessions of strength training each week. The more muscle mass you have, the better your body is at processing blood sugar. Muscle also burns more calories than fat. Lifting weights, calisthenics, and resistance exercises will help.
If you haven’t been working out, 150 minutes may sound like an awful lot of exercise. Don’t get intimidated — instead, divide it up. For example, that’s 30 minutes, 5 days a week. And you don’t have to do the 30 minutes all at once. Exercise for 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at lunch, and 10 minutes in the evening, and you’ve got 30 minutes total.
And if you’re just starting out? Any exercise at all is good for you, even if you only do it for 5 or 10 minutes a day. Once you’re used to that, gradually increase the amount of daily exercise.
If you have diabetes and haven’t been exercising, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a regular exercise program.
BEST DIABETES EXERCISES
Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, just about any activity that gets your heart rate up or builds strength is a good idea. Anything from line dancing to table tennis can work. Here are a few to try.
Walk more — briskly. For most people with diabetes, walking is a great choice. It’s easy. You can do it anywhere. You don’t need any equipment beyond a good pair of sneakers. However, if you have foot problems from diabetes, your doctor may recommend minimizing the time you spend on your feet.
Get off your feet. If you have poor circulation and nerve damage, opt for low-impact exercises to protect your feet from injury. Swimming and stationary biking are both good choices.
Consider tai chi or yoga. Some studies show that both are effective ways to lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. They also help reduce stress as well.
Be safe when weight-lifting. Starting a weight training program may have a big impact on your glucose levels and how you feel. You want your routine to involve major muscle groups in the upper and lower parts of your body and your core. One warning: in some people with vision damage related to diabetes, heavy weight lifting can injure blood vessels in the eyes. If you have vision problems from diabetes, talk to a doctor before you start lifting weights.
DIABETES AND EXERCISE: GETTING STARTED
Start slowly. If you haven’t exercised in a while, begin with just 5 to 10 minutes a day. Build up by adding a few minutes or repetitions each week.
Increase daily activity. Exercise doesn’t only happen when you’re suited up in workout gear. Add a little extra activity during the day whenever you can. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Deliberately park farther away from the supermarket entrance. Take a roundabout route into the house. Any extra movement counts.
Relax, actively. You don’t have to choose between exercise and TV. Set up a home treadmill, stationary bike, or exercise mat in front of the TV. Choose a couple of shows that you watch only when you’re exercising. Viewing just one movie a week while working out — in installments — would take up most of your 150 minutes of aerobic exercise.
Multitask. It’s not only TV time that can double up as physical activity. Call a friend or relative when you’re on a walk. Dedicate time on an exercise bike to reading a book or favorite magazine.
If you hate exercise, think about why. Write down the five things you like least about exercise. Then figure out some answers. If it’s boring or isolating, join a class or go on walks with a friend. If you hate the gym scene, exercise at home. If you’re uncomfortable during exercise, try dropping down to a less demanding workout for now.
TIPS ON EXERCISING SAFELY
Exercising with diabetes does mean that you need to take some extra precautions.
Talk to your doctor first before starting an exercise routine. He or she may have some specific advice about the best approach.
Hydrate. You lose water when you exercise, and that can upset your blood sugar levels. It’s important to drink water before, during, and after aerobic exercise to make up for what you’re losing.
Protect your feet. Because nerve damage and circulation problems from diabetes can lead to foot injuries, be careful. Get a good pair of comfortable sneakers. Before and after exercise, check your feet for any sores, blisters, or other signs of irritation. If you notice any, get treatment right away.
Ask your doctor if you should check your blood sugar before, during, or after exercise. Find out what levels are too low and too high for exercising safely, and how to treat signs of low blood sugar.
Watch the thermometer. If it’s very hot or cold, pay special attention to your blood sugar. Your body uses insulin differently at extreme temperatures.
Wear a medical identification tag. Wear a tag like MedicAlert or carry an identification card that states you have diabetes.
Keep a snack handy. Have a snack with you in case your blood sugar level drops low while you’re exercising.
Check for ketones. If you have type 1 diabetes, do not exercise if your blood sugar is greater than 250 mg/dL and your ketones are positive. This could indicate that you have low insulin levels and exercise will cause an increase in your blood sugar.
DIABETES AND EXERCISE: CHANGE IT UP
It happens to a lot of us: You think you’ve finally found an exercise routine you can stick with forever. At last you’ll be in shape, you think. Then, a few weeks or months later, the routine fizzles out — and the yoga mat, squash racquet, or Rollerblades sit forsaken in the garage.
When this happens, don’t get down on yourself — or give up. If you have diabetes, physical activity is just too important for your health. As soon as you feel yourself getting bored with a routine, try something else.
Some people seem to be wired to jog five times a week for their whole lives, rain or shine. The rest of us aren’t. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — you may just need more variety. Keep trying new things to make physical activity interesting. That could be your key to better health and good diabetes control.