If you’re living with diabetes and obesity, you may find the idea of an “exercise program” daunting—especially if you’ve been sedentary (inactive) or you’re living with a disability. It’s also challenging for many of us to set aside additional time for activity in our already busy lives. Yet physical exercise continues to be among the best ways to manage diabetes, helping control sugar in the blood as well as contributing to weight loss. Losing even a small fraction of your current body weight can help you better manage chronic conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Instead of looking at exercise as an insurmountable challenge, try reaching for the next most accessible thing you can do that doesn’t require big decisions or commitments. Allyson Fleischman, PT, DPT, a physical therapist and inpatient therapy supervisor at Bryn Mawr Rehab suggests asking yourself, what do you like to do?
“If you look at a stationary bike and you really don’t like to do that,” she says, “then get into another cardiovascular routine that you do like.” Fleischman also advises keeping safety in mind and getting clearance from your doctor before starting any physical activity program. Someone with balance concerns, for example, probably shouldn’t use a treadmill. Also consider what you’re already doing that could greatly contribute to your activity goals.
Turning everyday activities into calorie-burning exercise
Exercises for people with diabetes who are overweight or obese can be as simple as stepping it up around the house or as you go about your day. The American Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week or approximately 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Fleischman advises breaking this up into 10-minute chunks of time, especially as you’re building up your activity level. For people with diabetes, activity may include:
- Walking for 10 minutes after dinner. Taking a 10-minute walk after any meal—particularly after dinner—has a significant impact on glucose levels. A small study* conducted in New Zealand found that walking for just 10 minutes after dinner is more effective at bringing blood sugar down than walking for longer periods of time at any other time of day. Participants who walked after evening meals experienced an average 12 percent drop in glucose levels compared to participants who walked at other times of day.
- Stand up while folding laundry—or talking on the phone or anything else you do sitting down. You may have heard the expression by now: Sitting is the new smoking. For people with diabetes it’s even more dangerous as the act of sitting has a specific effect on blood sugar levels. It affects the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin to balance out blood sugar. Physical movement helps the pancreas do its job better. So for all the times of day you find yourself grabbing a seat, look instead for opportunities to take a stand. Do you fold your laundry while sitting on the sofa or bed? Stand up and do it instead. Then take multiple trips to put it away. Chatting on the phone while lying back in that recliner? Get up and pace the house whenever you’re talking or texting.
- Get up from your chair or desk every 30 minutes. No matter where you are, set a timer on your phone, reminding you to get up and move every 30 minutes. Take a loop around your office floor. Walk to the nearest exit and check the weather outside. If you’re at home, go for a spin around the house. Water the plants. Pet the cat. Take your dog for a walk. Take a few trips up and down the stairs.
- See household chores as workout opportunities. Housework, hands down, is one of the best ways to get some activity in, especially if you’ve been inactive or you don’t care for traditional exercise routines. A study conducted by Musclefood.com, a sports nutrition company, found that household chores can easily add up to a 2,000-calorie burn every week. The study found that dusting furniture for 15 minutes is the equivalent of doing a two-minute plank. Making beds for 15 minutes equals a one-mile power walk and scrubbing the bathtub for 15 minutes equals 30 jump squats. For most of us, household chores are a part of our daily lives anyway. Instead of dreading them, shift your thinking and see them as opportunities to increase your activity level.
- Do heel raises at the coffee machine or water cooler. When it feels like there’s “just no time” to do exercise, you really can find moments in your day that are idle, such as waiting in line at the grocery store or the bank, or even while the coffee machine is brewing. Rise up on your toes and do a set of 10 heel raises while you’re waiting. Or put your shoulders back and contract your abdominal muscles for 10 seconds. Release and repeat for as long as your wait is.
Taking it to the next level—for people with diabetes who are already active
If you’re living with diabetes and are overweight or obese—yet you’re already on the move with regular exercise and activity—here are some ways Fleischman recommends taking your fitness to the next level:
- Sign up to run (or walk) a 5K. Find a charitable cause you believe in that has a fitness challenge associated with it.
- Add 10 more minutes to whatever you’re already doing. Whether it’s walking the dog or playing with the kids or grandkids, tack on 10 more minutes to push yourself a little further. Notice how you feel afterwards and as your cardiovascular fitness improves (e.g., better breathing).
- Start a new activity. Do something you’ve always wanted to do, such as take dance lessons or practice tai chi. Get involved in nature walks through a local outdoor organization or find a like-minded group on meetup.com.
Staying safe when it comes to diabetes and exercise
Be sure to keep in touch with your doctor. Some activities may not be safe for your level of fitness or health condition. Your doctor can suggest alternatives and work with you to develop a plan. It’s also a good idea to measure your glucose before, during and after activity. Exercise uses up blood glucose so you may need to keep a snack on hand to replenish, especially if you’re pushing yourself beyond your usual limits. It’s also a good idea to keep identification with you at all times and to have your doctor’s contact information on hand. Be sure to wear proper footwear or gear, when appropriate, to prevent injury and to protect your feet, which may be particularly vulnerable to ulcers (sores) due to neuropathy from diabetes.
* Reynolds, AN, Mann, JI, Williams, S, Venn, BJ. Advice to walk after meals is more effective for lowering postprandial glycaemia in type 2 diabetes mellitus than advice that does not specify timing: a randomized crossover study. Diabetologia. 2016;59(12):2572-2578.