Water Exercise for Diabetes

If you have trouble doing land exercises, or don’t like them, why not get in the water? Summertime might be a great time to start.

In a recent study from the University of Alberta, Canada, Dr. Normand Boulé, PhD, wrote, “Some people could not participate in our land-based (e.g., walking) studies due to barriers such as joint pain.” But with water exercise, over time, “Improvements in fitness and reductions in joint pain may translate to increases in the ability to be physically active in other ways, outside of the pool.”

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Joint pain is only one limitation to land exercise. Some people, like me with my multiple sclerosis (MS), can’t walk well enough to get any exercise from walking. Sometimes it’s too hot to exercise on land.

Water exercise fixes a lot of those problems. The water cools you down and holds you up, so you can’t fall. The buoyancy of water makes water exercise low impact; it’s almost impossible to hurt yourself. And it’s fun.

According to an article from Joslin Diabetes Center, “This low-impact aerobic exercise is less stress on your joints, bones, and muscles than most land-based aerobic exercises such as running. Being in the water makes it easier to lift and move different parts of your body, which increases your range of motion and flexibility. Also, the water pressure cushions your submerged body parts, which helps decrease swelling around the joints.”

What is water exercise?
You can do all kinds of water exercise, but three of the main ones are:

• Water aerobics — in which you do all sorts of moves like jumping jacks or lunges, in shallow water, often to music. The water gives you support and keeps you from falling. According to the Joslin article, “The added resistance of the water on the muscles increases the rate of calorie burn, which aids in weight loss… Just like swimming, it improves muscular endurance, and fitness.”

• Swimming — using any of various strokes. You have to learn how, and maybe get some goggles, but once you get used to it, swimming relaxes and energizes you at the same time.

• Water running — where people run through deep water in a standing position, using different arm strokes. You normally wear a flotation belt, which keeps you afloat and helps keep you upright.

Water running was my favorite exercise in life. I led classes in it for ten years, even after I became disabled myself. Because the water supports you, you can do moves in water that you couldn’t do on land.

How water exercise helps
Like any exercise, water exercise helps lower blood sugar levels. It also contributes to positive changes in body composition, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

You can also do upper-body water exercises. “The upper-body exercises often include the use of webbed gloves or specially designed water weights,” according to the Joslin article. “These tools increase resistance of the movements requiring your muscles to work that much harder.”

Water aerobics and water running can be great fun. All kinds of foam toys have been invented that people play with. Imagine sitting on a long foam rubber noodle and paddling around the pool. Your upper body has to work to stay on the noodle, but you can play with a ball or other toys while you’re doing it. Because your head is out of the water, water exercise classes can be good places to socialize and make new friends.

Problems with water exercise
Maintaining a water exercise program can be challenging. You need access to a pool. That often costs money and may require some travel. You have to find a good program. You need swimsuits, and may want other equipment.

Some people may not like the water or feel safe in it. But many people get used to it and find it a highlight of their day or week.

The website Defeat Diabetes encourages people to try the water. “No exercise is perfect for everyone,” they say, “but water aerobics comes close because it is so flexible to individual needs, restrictions, and abilities. You can also easily add difficulty to your routine by adjusting the size and speed of your movements, adding weights or aquatic gloves, or working in deeper water.”

Because of flotation equipment, you don’t need to know how to swim to do water exercises. But if you can’t swim, the website advises, don’t do these exercises alone.

Always carry your meds and testing supplies with you. Your sugar can go low in the water, as it can with any exercise.

“It is important to test before and after you exercise,” Defeat Diabetes says. “If [your glucose] is less than 70 mg/dl, treat the low, and wait to exercise for a few hours. If it is 71–100 mg/dl, have a snack. If you have Type 1 diabetes and your glucose is above 250 mg/dl, check for ketones and only exercise if your ketones are negative. If you have Type 2 and feel well, you can exercise with glucose less than 300 mg/dl.”

As with any exercise, have a quick carb source handy. It makes sense to have them in a waterproof container near the pool or on your person in case you need them fast.

Drink plenty of water. And have fun!

Want to learn more about making exercise fun? Read “Making Exercise Fun” and “Making Exercise More Fun.”