Exercise for Diabetes?

Diabetes, Diabetes Type 1, Diabetes Type 2, Endocrine Disorders, Featured Article, Fitness, News and Advice
on June 19, 2013
One of the best exercises for diabetics is swimming.

Spry editor Lisa Delaney is one of the rare souls who know what it’s like to be an “after.” This journalist and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl shed 70 pounds—and six dress sizes–and has kept it off for 20 years. She answers your questions here each week.

DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: I am a Type 2 diabetic and have severe neuropathy in my feet and hands. I swim three times a week at our local YMCA. I have lost about 20 lbs., but need to lose at least 10 more. I am not really good with exercise at home. I have a treadmill but can only go for about 10 minutes at a time. Any tips?? Thanks.—Anna

DEAR ANNA: Thanks for your note. I celebrate ANYONE who works hard at being healthy, but particularly folks with limitations like neuropathy (for all you uninitiated, that’s nerve damage that causes pain and numbness). I know you want to lose more, but please take time to congratulate yourself for all that you have already done (we so often forget to do this).

RELATED: Paula Deen’s Diabetes Friendly Recipes

As far as those nagging last 10 pounds, remember this: Your body adapts very quickly to exercise and movement. That’s why workouts are more difficult when you first start them, and get easier over time—unless you change something. If your same-old-same-old routine feels easy, that’s a red flag that you’re not getting much out of it anymore. To keep seeing progress, you have to make your workout hard again.

So, how do you do that? Some ideas.

Soup up your swim. Swimming is fantastic exercise for people of any age, and is very forgiving if you happen to have physical limitations. The thing about swimming, though, is that it’s easy to take it easy in the pool, because the water can be so gentle and soothing. But water can also provide great resistance—the faster you try to move through it, the more resistance it provides. You don’t have to be a super athlete to soup up your swim. Try doing intervals in the pool, where you alternate faster lengths with slower lengths—even bumping up your speed a bit will help you burn calories overall. If your neuropathy doesn’t preclude it, try adding pool tools like flippers for your feet or hand-paddles (or both), which add to the resistance in the water and up the intensity of your workout.

Try other water exercise. Water aerobics classes can help you work your muscles in different ways while still being easier on your joints than land-based exercise. Many classes involve tools like dumbbells made of foam so you can mimic weight lifting moves using the water for resistance. Again, water aerobics are only as challenging as you make them—if you work hard in your class, you will get more out of it.  (Isn’t it funny how that happens?)

Get off your feet. If you haven’t already, try a stationary bike (many gyms and physical therapy facilities have “step-through” models that don’t require you to hike your leg over the seat) to work your larger, lower-body muscles that burn more calories than the smaller muscles in your body. Recumbent bikes, which sit lower to the ground, offer stability to folks who may be a bit unsteady. And consider an “arm ergometer,” aka a hand-crank machine. Picture a stationary bike with pedals at chest level that you crank with your hands and arms rather than feet and legs. Once mainly found in physical therapy settings, these machines have made their way into many standard health clubs and have even spawned group exercise classes called Kranking (created by the guy who came up with Spinning).

Add some weight. Resistance training can not only stoke your metabolism by building muscle (which burns more calories than fat), but it can also improve your stability, posture and balance, which can be important if numbness in your feet affects your surefootedness. You don’t have to lift weights (but they are perfectly acceptable)—stretchy resistance bands work great too.

Get expert help. Because of your condition, it’s crucial to have specific, individualized advice regarding the activities you choose and your intensity level. If you can swing it financially, please do get a personal trainer or physical therapist who is schooled in working with people who have your condition. That may not be easy to find, but start by asking your doctor or his staff, your diabetes educator, physical therapy facilities, etc. A call to the local American Diabetes Association chapter (find yours by entering your zipcode here) is also a good idea, too. A good general personal trainer or exercise specialist could give you what you need, but you want to make sure whoever is designing your program and working with you understands how to work with people with neuropathy so you both see results and are protected from injury.

Lisa Delaney is editor of Spry magazine and Spryliving.com. Ask her your question here.