“Exercise is like medicine for people with diabetes,” says Jacqueline Shahar, a certified diabetes care and education specialist and clinical exercise physiologist at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, Massachusetts. “When muscles contract, they require energy in the form of glucose. The more we exercise, the more glucose gets used and the better diabetes is controlled. Exercise increases muscle mass, which also helps people stay in better control.”
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Check out this list of ways people with diabetes can exercise and have fun while doing it.
Walking is a great workout. It’s easy to do, has a low risk of injury, requires no special equipment and can be done anytime and virtually anywhere (including indoor venues like malls and airports).
Like most forms of cardiovascular exercise, it lowers cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels, strengthens bones and muscles, improves cardiovascular fitness and lightens mood. It is a familiar activity and an easy way to burn calories, which is important if you’re trying to shed pounds or maintain your body weight.
Exercise experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, and brisk walking qualifies as moderate-intensity exercise, so a 30-minute walk five times a week meets that goal. If 30 minutes feels like too much, begin with three 10-minute walks and gradually walk for longer periods.
Hiking has multiple benefits. It is good cardiovascular exercise, and lowers blood pressure and the risk of disease of the heart and blood vessels. It aids in weight loss and increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin, which can make diabetes easier to control. Like other forms of weight-bearing exercise, it can strengthen bones and lower the risk of osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle, increasing the risk of fracture.
Most forms of exercise improve mood, lowering the risk of depression, but outdoor exercise has added psychological benefits. Research shows that, compared with exercising indoors, those who exercise in natural environments reported increased feelings of revitalization and energy and a decrease in tension, anger and confusion. They also enjoyed outdoor activity more and were more likely to do it again.
Yet hiking is more strenuous than many people think, and it’s a lot more fun if you’re physically fit to begin with. A good way to start out is to take short hikes on fairly level ground and gradually take longer and steeper hikes. Other activities that build endurance include climbing stairs, biking and more active forms of yoga.
If you want a more vigorous workout than walking, consider running. Running has all of the benefits of walking, but it can provide better cardiovascular benefits and burn many more calories per minute.
If you plan to run, be sure to get proper footwear, consulting an expert to make sure the shoes fit well and are suitable to running. You will tend to sweat a lot more when you run, so be sure to wear material that wicks perspiration from the skin.
Brisk walking is a great way to transition into running. If you’re used to taking 30-minute walks, then switch off between walking and jogging for half an hour. Then gradually increase the amount of time that you jog. If you take insulin, speak with your diabetes health professional about how to manage your diabetes when running.
Biking is a great form of aerobic exercise, with all of the cardiovascular benefits, but is gentler on the body than walking, hiking or running. Bicycling outdoors can be especially good for a person’s mood and outlook. Riding on hiking trails is becoming increasingly popular because you don’t have to deal with traffic and you can enjoy the psychological benefits of being out in nature. Some people use trail bikes, but a hybrid bike can allow you to bike both on smooth asphalt roads and trails.
Stationary exercise bikes can also be great for people who feel awkward on a road bike, and you can use a stationary bike indoors no matter what the weather.
Swimming is an aerobic full-body workout, strengthening all of the major muscles of the body. It is also a gentle workout, putting less stress on the feet than most forms of exercise. The buoyancy of the water also puts less stress on joints, which is important for preventing injury in people who are overweight or have arthritis. Many YMCAs offer swimming lessons as well as aerobics classes in the pool.
Strength training is beneficial to everyone, but it has the added benefit of helping to control blood glucose levels in people with diabetes. As muscles use glucose, and the more muscle mass you have, the better your blood glucose control. It is ideal to strength train at least three times a week, but it is important not to work the same muscles two days in a row — they need time to rest and repair.
A good place to start strength training is your local gym or YMCA. There are usually staff members who can show you how to train safely. The safest way to begin is with weight machines using pulleys, but you might eventually move on to free weights, such as barbells and dumbbells.
Functional fitness exercises are designed to give people the strength needed to perform real-life day-to-day activities rather than tone muscles and look good on the beach. For example, squats mimic the motion of getting in and out of a chair. Lunges mimic such activities as vacuuming, mopping, raking and shoveling. Typically, functional fitness exercise uses only a person’s body weight, at least to begin with, and then sometimes weights are added. YMCAs and other gyms may offer functional fitness classes or may incorporate functional fitness into their workouts, sometimes using fitness balls, medicine balls and kettle balls.
Yoga refers to a number of related mental and physical practices that originated in ancient India. Some types of yoga, such as Iyengar yoga, emphasize healthy posture, while others, such as power and Ashtanga yoga, emphasize building strength, endurance and flexibility. What they have in common is an emphasis on coordinating movement with breath. The potential benefits of yoga include relaxation as well as improved sleep, posture, balance, strength, flexibility and concentration. Yoga is offered in most gyms, YMCAs and yoga studios. Ask ahead of time what type of class might be best for you. If you take a class that is either too challenging or not challenging enough, you can try another one.
Shahar recommends getting a thorough medical assessment before starting a new exercise routine to make sure a given exercise doesn’t make any medical conditions worse. For example, some exercises may be harmful to people with diabetic retinopathy (eye disease), and, for people with knee pain or flat feet, walking or running may make it worse. People on insulin or certain oral agents may need to learn to make adjustments to avoid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Want to learn more about ways to have fun exercising? Read “Making Exercise Fun” and “Making Exercise More Fun.“
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