You’ve heard it time and time again: Physical activity is a key part of managing diabetes. But being physically active is something that millions of people struggle with — and not just those who have diabetes. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), about 52% of Americans ages 18 and over meet the physical activity guidelines for aerobic activity, and only 22% meet guidelines for both aerobic activity and strength training. When it comes to diabetes, the percentage is even lower: Only about 30% of people who have Type 2 diabetes follow an exercise program, according to the authors of a new study published in the journal Acta Diabetologica.
Benefits of physical activity for diabetes
Why be active? The benefits are numerous. They include:
• Lower blood sugars
• Improved insulin sensitivity
• Increased muscle mass and strength
• Reduced body fat
• Weight maintenance
• Lower blood pressure and cholesterol
• Increased bone mass
• Improved sleep
• Reduced stress
• Better mood
Barriers to being active
It’s one thing to know why you should be active; it’s another thing to actually be active. What gets in the way? Here are some common barriers that keep a lot of people from reaping the benefits listed above:
• Having a lack of time (or a perceived lack of time)
• Being too tired
• Worrying that it’s too hot/cold/rainy/snowy
• Thinking that it’s boring
• Feeling self-conscious
• Feeling unsafe
• Not being sure what to do
• Worrying about blood sugars going too low
• Not liking being hot and/or sweaty
• Feeling a lack of motivation
• Being afraid it will hurt (my knee, my back, my shoulder, etc.)
No doubt, all of us have come up against these exercise barriers at one point or another. After working an 8- to 10-hour day, for example, the last thing you may want to do is go home and jump on the treadmill.
Turning to water
The good news is that we’re not all doomed to be a nation of couch potatoes. There are multiple ways to tackle those barriers head on and become more active. One way to do this is to rethink your choice of activity. Walking is often recommended as one of the best ways to start and stay active, but maybe it’s not your thing. So why not hit the water? Here’s why you might:
• Water exercise works many of your muscles and joints.
• It also works your upper and lower body at the same time.
• It’s a great choice if you have joint pain.
• You won’t get all hot and sweaty.
• It provides both aerobic and resistance exercise — two for one!
• It’s low impact, so it’s easier on your joints.
• The water pressure helps your heart work more efficiently.
• It increases your flexibility.
• You’ll burn calories.
• Your blood pressure and cholesterol will drop.
• There’s a lower risk of injury compared to other types of exercise.
• You’ll manage stress better.
• You’ll have fun!
• Your quality of life will improve.
• Last but not least: You’ll lower your blood sugars and A1C.
Still not quite convinced? Michael See, an exercise physiologist and certified diabetes educator, says, “Exercising in water is a great option if you can’t do or have trouble doing land-based activities, like walking, due to joint pain or balance issues.” In fact, it’s much easier to lift and move your body when you’re in the water. Also, water provides cushioning so that you’re not jarring your joints or your bones. Plus, you’re less likely to experience any type of swelling around your joints.
Research backs up all of these water exercise benefits, too. The recent study in Acta Diabetologica, published in July, looked at nine previously published studies that investigated aquatic exercise and health in people with Type 2 diabetes. After 8 weeks, water exercisers had lower A1C, and after 8–12 weeks, they additionally had lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides (a type of blood fat) compared to “land-lubber” exercisers. Other studies support the increase in muscle mass and flexibility seen in water exercisers.
All well and good to jump in the water, but what if you can’t swim? No worries. Water exercise doesn’t have to mean swimming lap after lap (unless that’s what you choose to do). You don’t even have to know how to swim to partake. Water aerobics (otherwise known as aqua aerobics or waterobics) typically involves a group fitness class in waist-deep or sometimes deeper water, led by a trained fitness instructor. The class may incorporate Zumba moves, water jogging, and/or use of equipment, such as kickboards, foam “noodles,” or water weights. If you don’t have access to a class, you can create your own water routine by walking or jogging, using a kickboard, or by wearing hand webs. There are plenty of water exercise routines on the Internet, too.
Of course, you need access to water in order to “immerse” yourself into water exercise, and understandably, not everyone has a pool, a lake, or the ocean nearby. The cost of joining a pool may be too high for some people, as well.
Taking the plunge
However, if you’re ready to “dive in” and give water exercise a try, here are a few pointers to get you started:
• As with any new type of physical activity program, always check with your health-care provider to make sure it’s safe and to determine if there are any type of limitations that you have.
• If you’re not lucky enough to have a pool or to live by a body of water, look into pool facilities in your community. You may have a local Y, community pool, or health club in your town or city. You might have to go to a neighboring town to find something suitable.
• Ask if you can try out a class before you commit to signing up.
• If swimming is what appeals to you, sign up for a few swimming lessons.
• Never swim or be in the water alone.
• Check your blood sugar before and after your water workout to learn how the activity affects your blood sugar.
• If you’re at risk for low blood sugars, carry a form of fast-acting carb with you at all times, and let your instructor and/or someone at the pool know that you have diabetes. Wearing a medical ID bracelet is a good idea, too.
• Don’t forget to stay hydrated. Even though you’ll be in the water, it’s important to drink fluids before, during, and after your water workout.
Want to learn more about water exercise? Read “Water Exercise for Diabetes.”