weight training

Exercise is medicine

It’s more than just good for you. Nicole McCreedy tells us why.

Regardless of the type of diabetes you have, your doctor is likely to recommend a combination of diet, exercise and, if necessary, medication to help control your blood sugar levels. Many studies have shown that adopting a healthy lifestyle is effective in treating diabetes.

Being newly diagnosed with diabetes can be overwhelming at first. For some, doctor’s orders to exercise regularly may feel like a big obstacle to overcome on this new journey. But don’t stress if you’re someone who can’t recall the last time the word exercise passed your lips: even small steps in the right direction count.

The decision to exercise is the first step to better health. “Exercise is literally the best medicine,” according to biokineticist, Sarah Hall. “This is not saying you can stop taking what the doctor has prescribed,” she advises, “but exercise will generally improve your health, decrease your stress levels, help with weight loss and improve your wellbeing.”

No matter what your medical condition, there is usually some form of exercise that you can do. Make an effort to find an activity that you like, and are able to perform at your current level of health and fitness. This will make it a much easier habit to keep.

Diabetes educator, Kate Bristow, has put together a list of five activities suitable for people with diabetes you can consider trying out:

Walking briskly for thirty minutes, five days a week is the global recommendation for all adults – with or without diabetes. For exercise “newbies”, you can break this up into shorter sessions throughout the day. In fact, a recent study from New Zealand found that taking a ten-minute stroll immediately after a meal may be better for lowering blood sugar levels than a full half hour session once a day.

Cycle for 15 to 30 minutes three times per week. Maintain your heart rate at no more than 65 to 75% of your max, which is a great way to increase your blood circulation and the demands on your body gently. Depending on where you live, consider using a bicycle to commute to work or to nearby places you need to visit. Not only is it a good way to increase your daily level of activity; it can also make the trip more interesting.

Low intensity whole body weight training helps the body to absorb sugar (glucose) into the muscles. As a result, your body becomes more sensitive to insulin and this can lower blood sugar levels. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn – even when your body is at rest. Preventing muscle loss with weight or strength training is also the key to maintaining an independent lifestyle as you age. Get help from a qualified professional who can supervise you while performing the exercises. To start, your weight training programme may include two to three sets of 15 repetitions (reps) for each muscle group twice a week.

Tai Chi or Beginner Yoga are both forms of exercise that allow for gentle movements, through breathing and controlled contraction of the muscles of the entire body. It is best, when first learning either of these disciplines, to join a class so that you learn the correct, safe techniques. A beginner class is approximately 45 minutes. Let the instructor know if you are new to the class, so that they know to help you with the postures. 

Swimming allows once again for the whole body to be involved, with movement performed in a supportive environment.  As long as you take regular breathing and rest breaks, you will see rewarding results.

Tips from biokineticist Sarah Hall:

  • Don’t begin something that you cannot commit to – financially or time-wise.
  • Exercise, to be beneficial, needs to be regular and sustained.
  • Any little bit of regular exercise is better than none at all.
  • Start slowly and build it up – there is no point in hurting yourself in the first session.
  • When you begin an exercise programme, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor – especially those with health risk and those who are a bit older.
  • Exercise can lower your blood sugar levels and the effects can last up to two days after, therefore it is important to test regularly especially before and up to four hours after exercise and understand the effect exercise has on your own levels.
  • Know how to manage a low sugar level if it happens.
  • Set realistic, clear and concise goals.

No matter what kind of exercise you choose, your body will thank you!

Lift it!

Are you struggling to carry your shopping? Does moving boxes make you groan? Nicole McCreedy has the answer: simple weight training.

A simple weight training programme can make these everyday chores much easier for you – and get you in great shape. How? Well, lifting weights challenges your muscles, causing them to adapt and get stronger. Strength training builds strong muscles, bones and connective tissue. Not only does this help prevent osteoporosis and muscle loss as one gets older, it is also one of the most natural ways for people with diabetes to improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.

Weight training and diabetes

When you eat carbohydrate, it breaks down into smaller sugars (glucose, fructose and galactose) that get absorbed and used as energy. Any glucose that is not used gets stored in the muscles and the liver in the form of glycogen. Once the glycogen stores are filled up, any extra gets stored as fat. During exercise, the stored glycogen is transported to the active muscle to burn as fuel. Because muscle burns more kilojoules than fat, more muscle and less fat means better insulin use and glucose storage.

Lean muscle also boosts the metabolism and enables your body to burn kilojoules at a faster rate – even after you have finished exercising. A faster metabolism helps insulin to work better.

Getting started at home

Does the thought of weight training make you feel weak at the knees? Then start by learning the lingo before training at home.

A strength training workout is broken down into exercises, repetitions and sets. An exercise is a specific movement that works a muscle group. A rep, or repetition, is one complete motion. For example, to do a bicep curl repetition hold the weight or dumbbell at your shoulder then lower it in a controlled movement as you count to four. Lift the weight back to the starting or recovery position counting to six. A set is the number of repetitions performed together separated by a short rest period.

A workout plan

The next step is to set goals. Goals are a good way to keep yourself motivated. Do you want to tone your body, improve your strength or increase your endurance? Be realistic: results take time. Take photographs or simple body measurements every six to eight weeks to help you notice gradual changes.

Your aim in the beginning should be to develop the right technique. Maintaining the correct posture, while lifting a suitable weight, is important to prevent injuries. Try this side bend in front of the mirror: in one hand hold a weight along the side of your body. Slowly bend sideways sliding the weight toward your knees. Straighten up again. Check that you are not leaning backwards or forwards.

Weighing up the options

You can either buy hand-held (free) weights to use at home or you can improvise. Grab a tin of canned food from the cupboard to start. If that is too light, use a full 1 litre water bottle or a 2 litre milk bottle. Fill with sand to make the bottles heavier. If you are fairly strong, then fill two buckets with sand and try this squat: stand with your feet hip or shoulder width apart and hold a bucket by the handle in each hand.  Then bend your knees and lower yourself into a squat, as though you are about to sit in a chair. Stop when your thighs are parallel to the ground. Make sure your knees do not go beyond your toes. Exhale as you stand up slowly. Repeat without locking your knees.

The amount of weight you use depends on what you want to achieve and how strong you are. Choose a weight that allows you to do the repetitions you want to do without too much strain – only the last few repetitions in the set should feel like a struggle. The idea is that you give the muscle more to lift than it is used to. As the muscles grow stronger, you need to increase the weight until you reach your goal.

Stronger muscles will not only make your daily load feel lighter, but will also help prevent minor accidents from becoming serious injuries.

Ask the expert: Dr. Joel Dave, Endocrinologist

General advice for diabetics:

  • Before embarking on any weight- lifting programme, first discuss it with your doctor.
  • Do not lift any weights if you have proliferative retinopathy, severe non-proliferative retinopathy or a severe peripheral neuropathy
  • Do not lift weights if you have any foot injury or open skin lesions on the feet.
  • Wear adequate protective footwear at all times.
  • At your first session check how the exercise affects your blood glucose so that you will know what to expect in the future.
  • Check your fingerprick glucose before starting each session and proceed only if it is above 5.6 mmol/L.
  • Keep your glucometer and some kind of sugar nearby at all times.
  • It is best to exercise with a partner – do not lift heavy weights without a partner.
  • For the safest route, start with low weights and increase slowly under the guidance of an instructor.

Ask the expert: Sarah Hall, Biokineticist

Ask yourself the following questions when doing a weight-training programme:

– Are you training for strength, power or endurance?

A basic programme for each goal is:

Power:  4-6 reps, 2-3 sets;

Strength:  6-8 reps, 3-5 sets;

Endurance: 15-25 reps, 3 sets

– Do you have any previous injuries?

Previous injuries may rule out particular movements or ranges of motion in certain joints.

– Have you warmed up?

Do a light cardio warm up, stretching the muscles you are about to use so that you don’t strain.

– How much time do you have?

If you have limited time, rather focus on either upper body or lower body. That way you can target each muscle group in that part of the body and even do more than one exercise per muscle group for greater benefit.

– Have you allowed enough rest?

You need to rest for 40-60 seconds between sets, and 24-48 hours for each muscle group.

– Do you know how to practice good body mechanics?

Your body is the best machine you own.  Treat it like one and don’t abuse it!  Make sure that you move slowly and with control, breathe, and maintain a neutral spine. Never sacrifice form just to add more weight or repetitions.