“Exceed your limits!” “Push through the pain!” “Find your goal and crush it!” This is the kind of talk you hear in the world of competitive athletes. But what about the everyday athlete, the person who just wants to exercise because it feels good and improves health?
Everyone enjoys perks from exercise, such as lower blood pressure, better weight control and stronger bones — but it has special benefits for people with diabetes. Both cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise and strength training can lower blood glucose levels and decrease insulin resistance, one of the hallmarks of type 2 diabetes.
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Setting goals can be extremely helpful in starting and maintaining a healthy exercise program, but these goals must be achievable and ultimately good for your body. A good starting point is the 2008 exercise guidelines from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which recommend strength-building exercises at least twice a week, moderate-intensity aerobic activity for at least 150 minutes a week or vigorous-intensity activity for at least 75 minutes a week, or an equivalent combination. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) offers similar guidelines. Yet a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that only about 23% of U.S. adults met those guidelines. So if you can achieve the guidelines, you’re ahead of the pack.
Another way of looking at it is that you want to try to get 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Some people may find 30 minutes of any exercise kind of daunting. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to meet those guidelines from the word “go.” Many exercise experts recommend starting with three 10-minute periods of cardiovascular exercise (such as walking, biking or jogging) throughout the day and gradually working up to 20 to 30 minutes.
For many people, walking is the best place to start. You can measure your walking distance in blocks or, thanks to many phone apps, in miles, fractions of miles or footsteps. A sensible goal would be to increase the distance by 10% every week and gradually increase speed. Some people move on to jogging and running from there.
Next, you can add strength training. Muscles burn the most glucose, and so the more muscle tissue you have, the more glucose you use. Weight training is the most commonly used form of strength training, although exercises that use a person’s own body weight (such as pushups and pullups) work, too. Exercise experts recommend 20 to 30 minutes of strength training every week to get the full benefit, but, again, you can start out with as little as 10 minutes and work your way up.
Finally, flexibility training can improve the function of muscles and joints. It can also reduce muscle soreness, especially after a cardiovascular or strength-training workout, and help prevent injury. Incorporating these three components of fitness — aerobics, strength and flexibility — can help you achieve your ultimate goal: a long, active and healthy life.
Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”