Diabetes Fitness Basics

Type 2 diabetes is not inevitable. Preventing and even reversing the onset of diabetes is entirely achievable, but it takes commitment. Taking charge of your health involves a two-pronged approach: diet and exercise. Both are crucial for long-term success and optimal health.

Diet + Exercise

Efforts to improve your lifestyle are a good thing, and it’s important to realize that both diet and exercise are crucial components of a successful strategy to beat diabetes. Studies have shown that lifestyle interventions can improve insulin sensitivity, improve blood lipid profiles and help lower high blood sugar levels. They even help lower body weight—and excess body weight is closely linked to the onset of diabetes.

A study called the Diabetes Prevention Program showed that in people at risk for diabetes, lifestyle changes that involved 30 minutes of exercise per day, along with 5-10% weight loss, decreased the risk of progressing to type 2 diabetes by 58%.  But keep in mind that diet and exercise should go hand in hand.

For instance, you can exercise like mad, but if your diet features loads of sugar and fat and very little fiber or phytonutrients (beneficial plant compounds), you’re unlikely to realize the benefits you’re striving for. Likewise, you can eat an optimal, healthful diet, but if you never get up and move, your cardiovascular health will almost certainly suffer. And make no mistake; cardiovascular health and diabetes are intricately linked. Committing to a better diet and daily exercise promotes better blood sugar control, better mood and higher energy levels, which makes it easier to exercise, while daily exercise boosts energy levels and makes you feel better about yourself. And that increases the likelihood that you’ll stick with a healthful diet. Win/win!

Start With the Basics

All movement counts!  Do something you enjoy so you are able to stick with it.  Beneficial exercise can be as simple as walking every day. Even small changes can make a big difference. Try these:

  • Consider parking as far from the door as you can on your next trip to the store, for instance.
  • Exercise adds up.  If you can’t walk for 30 minutes, try walking for 10 minutes three times a day.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • If you work at a desk, take a standing break every 15 minutes or so.

Virtually anything you do to move your body is preferable to inactivity.

Be sure to speak with your physician before launching a new exercise program. To begin, set modest goals. For example:

  • Begin by walking for a specific, manageable time each day.
  • After a week or so, aim to increase this a bit until you’re walking for at least 30 minutes or more daily.

You’re more likely to stick to your exercise plan if it’s realistic. Research shows that mild to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise involving walking or jogging for just 10-30 minutes per day, three to five days a week, is adequate to produce significant improvements in blood sugar control. 

Aerobic Fitness Vs. Weight-Training: Which Do I Need?

Optimal physical fitness involves two separate, but complementary activities. Aerobic fitness—think anything that raises your heart rate—can be achieved through any number of activities; walking, running, swimming, dancing, tennis, basketball, etc. Simply put, aerobic exercise involves raising your heart rate for a certain length of time.

Strength training, sometimes called resistance training, is more focused on building muscle. Both forms of exercise are important for optimal fitness and blood sugar control. If you struggle to lift a gallon of milk, for instance, you may want to focus on increasing arm strength. Small, lower-weight dumbbells or stretchable bands can be extremely useful for building upper and lower body strength. Before beginning a strength training program, meet with someone who is familiar with how to structure a plan that best meets your needs.

Studies have shown that both types of exercise can significantly affect glycemic (blood sugar) control. Studies also show that including both forms is more effective than doing one or the other alone. 

How to Stay Committed and Focused

Some people are highly motivated and self-directed, and will find that committing to a routine exercise program merely requires will and determination. Others may need a little extra help staying motivated, and may benefit from joining a gym or signing up for a class or some other type of regular, scheduled activity. This approach provides the added benefit of companionship, mutual support and encouragement, and perhaps even an element of competition. Examples include joining a Masters swim program, or taking lessons in dancing, or some other aerobic, but social, activity. In any event, studies have shown that people feel less fatigue after exercising than they do after sitting on the couch. So, although exercising may seem like a chore at first, people who stick with it often find that they actually look forward to their newfound activity fairly quickly.

The point is to commit. To be truly effective, exercise should be engaged in routinely, and should involve both endurance (aerobic) and resistance (strength) training. So get moving, and stay moving!