“Some people teach tai chi specifically for people with diabetes,” says Sheri Colberg-Ochs, professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University and a member of the American Diabetes Association’s Prevention Committee. “When you have neuropathy or reduced function this can help.”
Increasing your flexibility won’t happen overnight — and you shouldn’t try to make that happen.
“The most critical thing is to not start out too intensely if you’re new to exercise,” says Colberg-Ochs. “There is no right or wrong way to progress unless you do it too quickly.”
The American Society for Exercise Physiology and the American Diabetes Association have released new exercise guidelines recommending that most people with diabetes not only get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week, but also perform resistance training on two or three days per week.
“It’s important to at least maintain your current level of muscle mass,” says Andrew S. Rhinehart, MD, medical director of the Johnston Memorial Diabetes Care Center in Abingdon, Virginia. “Age in and of itself will steal [strength] from us. If you can get stronger, that’s even better.”
You don’t have to buy a weight bench or dumbbell set to get stronger. Using inexpensive resistance bands, small hand weights, or even soup cans to exercise your muscles can make a dramatic difference.
“Hit the whole body from head to toe in order to maintain that muscle mass,” Rhinehart advises. “Resistance training helps [preserve] muscle mass in men and women and prevent osteoporosis.”
He cautions people with diabetic retinopathy (eye disease) to avoid lifting very heavy weights because of the risk of breaking blood vessels in the eyes.
“If you’re overly straining and you bear down, you’re lifting too much,” says Rhinehart.
Instead, lift light weights and do a high number of repetitions — 15 to 30 — in a set. Perform two to three sets per muscle group.
Calisthenics — those old gym-class standards that include squats, calf raises, and push-ups — can also help you build strength. However, as Rhinehart advises, go “low and slow” when beginning. Start with a low number of repetitions, and consider using modified poses, since calisthenics involve lifting your own body weight. At first, you may only be able to do knee-assisted push-ups. “But in six months, maybe you can do 10 push-ups from your toes,” Rhinehart notes.
“There is no reason to hurt yourself,” he adds. “Be careful.”
Calf raises appear simple but can be difficult. Stand near a sturdy chair (or something else you can hold on to) in case you have any difficulties with balance. Rise up onto the balls of your feet, hold this position for a few seconds, and then slowly return your heels to the floor. At first, you may not be able to raise yourself up completely, but that’s OK. Go as high as you can and work up to a full calf raise.
Squats work the entire leg and trunk area. Stand with your back against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart and about 1 1/2 to 2 feet from the wall. With your abdominal muscles engaged, slide downward by bending your knees. Make sure your knees are behind or directly above your ankle joints. Hold for a few moments and then go back up. Over time, you will find that you can hold the squat longer, but when you’re just starting out, don’t push yourself too hard.
(For resources that show how to do exercises and stretches correctly, click here.)