Exercise Tips for Diabetics

By Dennis V. Gargantiel

If you’re diabetic, no doubt your doctor has told you of the importance of exercise in fighting the disease. But for many of us chair-bound modern creatures - diabetic or not - it’s one of those things-to-do that never seem to get done, or done often enough. We mean to, want to, or even plan to, but never seem to run out of excuses, including not knowing where to start. Well, you can take that excuse off your list, because here are expert tips especially curated for Type 2 diabetics on how to get the ball rolling.

Check First With Your Doctor. Consult your doctor on what you can and cannot do in terms of physical exertion before you try anything; there may be health issues to consider aside from your condition. The time of day for exercise may be important, too, or you may need to adjust your meals, insulin or diabetes medications. Clear with your doctor, too, when to check your blood sugar level - before, during or after exercise.

Do What You Like. Exercise won’t feel like exercise if you enjoy doing it, and any activity that gets your heart rate going is just about as good as any exercise. Make a list and choose from activities and pastimes you like; it can be gardening, a stroll around the neighborhood, puttering around in the garage, ballroom dancing, or even dancing alone like no one’s watching. It can be a sport you enjoyed before, or an activity that you’ve always wanted to try. Mix it up and have a back-up activity for bad weather, for instance.

Recommended by Doctors. If high-impact exercise is not for you, doctors recommend swimming, biking (road or stationary), stair-climbing (for just three minutes or so, and you don’t need to run up and down), yoga and tai-chi as your best options. These low-impact aerobic exercises won’t hurt your joints as much or aggravate nerve problems in your feet. Unless your doctor advises otherwise, a half-hour (except for stair-climbing) of aerobic activity five days a week is generally ideal for Type 2 diabetics.

Include Strength Training. Experts say that strength-training exercises are especially good for improving blood sugar control, and recommend that you do some at least twice a week. Don’t worry if it sounds like gym work; it’s just a fancy term for push-ups, squats, lunges or yoga poses that make use of your own body weight, and lifting weights. Start with routines and however many repetitions you can handle, and work up. If you don’t have dumbbells, family-sized soda bottles or thick books will do just fine.

Ease into It. If you’ve been a couch potato for a while or easily get tired due to excess weight, don’t be daunted; start with baby steps and work yourself up at a pace that you’re comfortable with. The key is to get started; it’s the only hard part. Start with a simple routine of as little as perhaps five minutes, twice a week, and work up gradually to the ideal of at least 30 minutes, five times a week. Once you’re past the hump and feel the health benefits start to kick in, you might even find exercise quite enjoyable.

Form the Habit. The idea is to make regular exercise a habit, an integral part of your lifestyle. Habits - good and bad - need to be done often enough in order to take hold; depending on the person, the behavior and the circumstances, experts say this can take anywhere from 18 days to eight months, or more than two months on average, so you’ll have to gut it out at first. Stick to a schedule; just as you have appointed times for your meals and medication, decide on one for your activity or routine till it becomes automatic.

Check and Record Your Blood Sugar. Keep in mind your doctor’s advice regarding exercise and when to check your glucose level. In any case, if you plan to work out for more than an hour, diabetes experts say you should check it regularly during long workouts to see if you need a snack, and after workouts to see if you need to adjust your routine. Monitor your progress vis-à-vis target levels, and make sure to maintain a record for your next doctor’s appointment.

Pack a Snack. Be sure to have something in your gym bag to munch on in case you need a quick snack to raise your glucose level. Doctors and dieticians recommend foods that are rich in carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. Other than fruit and fruit drinks, diabetes-friendly snacks that are easy to pack are hard-boiled eggs, yoghurt, almonds, cottage cheese and beef sticks. A great combo they recommend that really sounds yummy is apple slices with peanut butter. In any case, be sure to eat just the amount you need!

Do It with a Friend. Like other activities, exercise is more fun with family or friends than when done alone. Bring along a buddy or your brother on your runs, and your pet dog on your evening strolls. If your friend can’t make it or your brother keeps coming up with a lame excuse, make new friends at the gym or village pool, join a cycling or tai-chi group, or enroll in a yoga class. You’ll get your needed exercise and it’ll be great for your social life too.

Let Others Know. One good thing about having a friend or family member along is that they know you’re diabetic and should know what to do in an emergency. Tell your trainer or gym manager and lifeguards at the club pool so they can keep an eye on you for signs your blood sugar level is getting too low. If you’re exercising outdoors, it’s also a good idea to wear a medical I.D. tag or have a card in your wallet or pouch clearly stating your condition, just in case.

Watch Your Feet. You should know that unchecked diabetes can cause nerve damage, particularly in your legs and feet. Foot ulcers can develop when you don’t feel as much sensation in your feet and toes, so it’s best to develop the habit of checking and cleaning your feet daily. Be sure to wear the right kind of shoes for your activity; tennis shoes, for example, aren’t good for running, and vice versa. Toss away footwear that’s too tight, too old and uncomfortably out of shape, or otherwise hurts your feet.

Hydrate! You should also know from your doctor that diabetics are more prone to dehydration, so be sure to keep hydrating and pack extra water if you’re working out outdoors just in case. Strenuous activity combined with high blood sugar is a perfect storm for dehydration, which can cause more problems for you. Aside from thirst, signs of dehydration are a dry mouth, sunken eyes, dizziness, headaches, tiredness, feeling confused, lethargy, and darkish yellow-colored urine.

When to Stop. Needless to say, it’s time to cut your routine short and pack it up for another day when a combination of these dehydration signals crop up. Feeling sudden pain anywhere in your body other than normal muscle soreness is also nature’s way of telling you to stop. It may just be an injury from doing too much, too soon, but in any case, consult your doctor as soon as you can; it may mean that a different kind of physical activity is more suited to you.

As they say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and when your doctor says regular exercise is non-negotiable, you just have to gut it out and find ways to make things fun. Once you’re over the hump, you may be surprised to find a healthier lifestyle quite enjoyable, and that it gives you some sense of power over diabetes, to boot. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of knowing where to start, and hopefully the above tips can help.

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