Stretch it out

Want to have a more flexible body and improve your circulation? Nicole McCreedy tells us why stretching should be part of everyone’s day.

When we’re young, it’s easy to imagine that our bodies will always do what they’re told. But as we age, our muscles tighten and all of a sudden something as easy as bending over to pick up your keys might be a struggle. Stretching is important because it keeps the body flexible and allows your joints to move through their full range of motion. Here’s all you need to know to keep flexible.

Why stretch?

For people with diabetes, improving circulation is essential for maintaining good health. Because stretching increases blood flow to the muscles, specifically the legs, it is great for circulation, but that’s not all. Regular stretching will increase nutrients to the muscles, improve your co-ordination, lengthen your muscles, reduce lower back pain, and even increase your energy levels.

How to stretch

While you can stretch anytime, anywhere – in your home or at work – you want to be sure to do it safely. Each stretch should be done in a slow and controlled manner till you feel ‘mild discomfort’. If it feels painful, you’ve stretched too far. Do not bounce or force the stretch.

Ideally, you should stretch before you start exercising. To avoid injury, first warm up your muscles. Run on the spot for a few minutes or do some jumping jacks to get your blood flowing and increase your heart rate. Stretch again at the end of your training sessions to help your muscles recover.

Types of stretching

What kind of stretching you choose to do will depend on your fitness and flexibility.

Static stretching is the most common form and is safe for beginners. Give this a try: to stretch the back of your upper thigh lie down on your back. Lift your right leg up in the air, heel facing the ceiling. Make sure that your lower back stays in contact with the floor and the left leg remains straight on the floor. Grip your raised leg with both hands. You may be comfortable holding your thigh, or you may be able to clasp your knee. Do what feels best for you. Keep your head and neck relaxed. Hold for 30 seconds or less. Change legs.

Passive stretching means you are using something outside yourself to help you stretch. Here’s a passive stretch to try: Relax the muscle you are trying to stretch and rely on a strap, gravity, another person, or your own body weight to stretch the muscle gently. Make sure you are well balanced before you start stretching!

Passive stretching is useful for those who have been injured or are frail. A recent study has found that passive stretching can help regulate blood glucose and is beneficial in treating people who are less physically able.

Dynamic stretching is moving through a challenging but comfortable range of motion repeatedly. Take shoulder circles for instance: stand tall, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Lift your right shoulder towards your right ear, take it backwards, down and then up again to the ear in a smooth action. Repeat six to ten times. Do the same with the left shoulder. What you are doing is actively contracting the muscle in the opposition position to the one that you are stretching.

Love stretching and want to take it further? Try yoga or pilates – both involve active stretching. With yoga, the postures are timed with the breath and are designed to put pressure on the glandular system. In pilates, the sequence of movements focuses on strengthening your core muscles – the deep, internal muscles of the abdomen and back.

What to keep in mind while stretching – Sarah Hall, Biokineticist

Remember that – just like people – each muscle group and joint is individual.

  • Make sure that you warm up before you do any activity, and stretch afterwards as well. A quick rule of thumb is to stretch a muscle only if it is tight.
  • Do not stretch in such a way that you put another joint or muscle at risk of injury.
  • Try to isolate a muscle when stretching. If you are working the hamstring, do not put weight on that leg. Breathe into the stretch to allow the benefits of the stretch to move through that muscle.
  • Decide on a reason for stretching a particular muscle: is it to relax, release tightness or restore length to the muscle? Aim to stretch each muscle for between 10 and 30 seconds.

Ask the expert: Dr. Zaheer Bayat, Endocrinologist

Exercise is good for everybody. But for those with diabetes, there are added benefits:

  • Exercise lowers glucose levels as muscles require more glucose for fuel.
  • Exercise helps in losing weight, which in turn improves morale. Not only will you feel better, you will also look good.
  • Exercise improves insulin sensitivity. This can go a long way to stabilizing blood sugar levels

When starting any exercise program, it is important to spend a few minutes stretching, which will help lessen the risk of doing damage to yourself.

Ask the expert: Prof. Wayne Derman, Professor of Sports and Exercise Medicine

“Flexibility is an important part of fitness, so stretching should be included in any exercise programme. It’s also a great way to manage and prevent muscle cramps. Not sure what to do? Get a physio, biokineticist or trainer to assist you with the right stretches for the muscle groups in which you are particularly tight.”

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!

Exercise meets meditation

Looking for a sport that’s relaxing and good for you? Yoga is not only a fantastic form of strengthening exercise, it’s also great for calming the mind – something most diabetics need! Here are some simple poses to try at home.

As a diabetic, the one thing you’re told over and over is that exercise is good for you. And it is! But sometimes exercise feels a bit too much like hard work. Now that the weather is colder it’s hard to get out for a walk or a run, and gym is not for everyone. That doesn’t mean you can sit back and wait for the weather to warm up, though! Yoga has just the right mix of strengthening, balancing and heart-racing poses, and you should take a few quiet minutes to lie down at the end of each class. Yes, that’s right! Exercise that makes you lie down!

There are specific reasons why yoga is good for people with diabetes, too. Yoga teacher Tasha Saha explains: “As well as better fitness and cardiovascular (heart and vein) health, yoga massages and increases the function of the internal organs, balances the endocrine system and has great effects on the release of stress hormones,” she says. “All of these are factors that affect blood sugar, so it’s no surprise that a number of big studies have shown that regular yoga can reduce blood sugar levels.” Another part of yoga that sets it apart from other exercise is that it increases body awareness – understanding how your body feels – which makes it easier to stay at a healthy weight and to make better food choices.

But which yoga to choose? In general, hot yoga (Bikram) and flow yoga (Ashtanga) are more difficult, so it’s better to begin with a slower practice like Hatha or Iyengar. Some poses (especially those that are active in the belly and lower back) are particularly good for diabetics because they target the pancreas, which can help to lower blood sugar levels. “But a balanced yoga session will work on every system in the body,” says Tasha, “as well as the mind and emotions too – lowering stress levels and helping you towards balance.” As every diabetic knows, balance is the magic word!

Here are a few yoga poses to try at home – these are very good for lowering blood sugar. If you can’t get to the full pose, go as far as you can. As you become more flexible, you will be able to stretch more. If something is sore, stop! Yoga should never be painful.

Seated twisting poses and forward bends

These stimulate the digestive organs and help the insulin work better in the system.

Seated forward bend

First: Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Flex your feet and press down through your heels. Place your hands on the floor next to your hips and sit up straight, opening your chest.

Then: Take a deep breath in, and without curving your back, lean forward from the hips, not the waist. Either hold on to your feet or use a strap around the soles of your feet. Make sure your elbows are straight, not bent. Be careful not to pull yourself down – you want to lengthen the spine, not force it. Keep your head raised and aim to get your belly touching your thighs, and then your ribs. This might take a few months!

Finally: When you’re ready to come up, lift the body away from the thighs, take a deep breath in and slowly straighten up. Stay in this pose for: 1 to 3 minutes.

Half Lord of the fishes

First: Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Slide your left foot under your right leg to the outside of your right hip, with your left leg on the floor. Step your right foot over your left leg and place it on the floor outside your left hip. The right knee will point up to the ceiling.

Then: Exhale and twist your body towards the inside of your right thigh. Press your right hand against the floor behind you, and your left upper arm on the outside of your right thigh near the knee. Stay in this position, breathing deeply, then exhale and release.

Finally: Return to the position you started with, and repeat on the other side for the same length of time.

Stay in this pose for: 30 seconds to 1 minute. 

Standing poses and flow poses

Any pose where you have to stand or flow from one pose to another is excellent for the blood and heart systems.


First: Stand up straight, with your feet together and your hands at your side. Breathe out, and step your feet apart, as wide as you can while still feeling balanced. Turn your left foot in 45 degrees, and your right foot out 90 degrees. Make sure the right heel and the left heel are in line with each other.

Then: Breathe out, and rotate your body till you are facing over the front foot. Raise your arms over your head, and reach towards the ceiling. Drop your shoulders and arch your upper back a little. With your back heel firmly pressing into the floor, breathe out and bend your front knee over your front ankle.

Finally: Reach through your arms and, if possible, bring the palms together. Keep your head looking forward or looking up at your thumbs.

Stay in this pose for: 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Poses which ground the body

These help to refresh the pancreas, liver and other abdominal organs.


First: Lie on your belly with your arms on either side, palms facing up, and your forehead resting on the floor. Turn your big toes towards each other and clench your butt.

Then: Exhale and lift your head, upper body, arms, and legs off the floor (this may take some practice!) Firm your butt and strengthen your legs. Raise your arms and stretch back through your fingers. Look ahead, but be careful not to stick your chin out. Keep the back of your neck long.

Finally: Breathe out and release. Take a few breaths and repeat (if you want to!)

Stay in this pose for: 30 seconds to 1 minute. 

Poses where the feet are higher than the head.

These direct the flow of blood towards the pancreas and relieve pressure in the feet.


First: Lie with your back on the floor, in as straight a line as possible, with your legs up against the wall in a 90 degree angle (your body should form half of a square). Rest your shoulders on the floor and allow a small gap between your hips and the wall.

Then: Rest in this pose.

Finally: When you’re ready to come out of it, turn to the side for a few breaths and then come up into a sitting position.

Stay in this pose for: 5 to 15 minutes.

Want to give it a try? Many yoga studios offer free classes to beginners. Most gyms also offer yoga classes at a fraction of the price of private classes.

“Remember that everyone is different, so the range you will be able to work into will be different in each pose. It’s a good idea to start with a one-on-one yoga session so that you learn how your joints and muscles work within a safe range of motion. That way, you’ll be in control of the intensity and can adjust it for your fitness levels.”

– Sarah Hall, Biokineticist