By Beth W. Orenstein Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
Here's how to jump-start an exercise program, overcome common obstacles to exercising, and stay active to better manage your diabetes.
Exercise has many health benefits, and if you're living with type 2 diabetes, you know this is especially true for you. Create a regular exercise program, and it will help you control your blood sugar, improve your heart health, boost your mental health, and reach and maintain a healthy weight . And yet, even if you know how important exercise is in managing diabetes, it can still be difficult to get started. Further, once you start exercising, it can be tough to stay motivated and continue exercising on a regular basis. Follow this guide to get and stay in the groove.
How to Start Exercising With Diabetes also good for Heart patients:
Use this step-by-step plan to create an exercise routine that’s suited to your current fitness level and that will help keep you motivated as you progress:
1 . Talk with your doctor. Before you begin an exercise program, get the go-ahead from your doctor. This is especially important if you’re taking medication for diabetes, high blood pressure, or any other health issue, as well as if you have joint or bone problems. “If you have diabetes complications and/or joint or bone problems, your doctor will explain which types of exercise are safe for you,” Shahar says. Also, make sure to have a dilated eye exam and let your eye doctor know about your physical activity plans. Some restrictions may occur if you have major changes in your retina or leakage, she adds.
2 . Find out how exercise could change your medication needs. Your muscles demand more glucose (sugar) when you’re exercising, and you need just the right amount of insulin to get glucose into your cells. “Glucose uptake by the active muscles increases, and insulin is working better when you are physically active,” Shahar says. “This process lasts 24 to 48 hours after exercise, which makes it a great way to manage blood glucose.”
3 . However, you may need to adjust your medication for your exercise routine to prevent low blood glucose (hypoglycemia). Also, ask your doctor if your exercise program will impact any other medications you’re taking, such as those for high blood pressure.
4 . Look at what’s stopping you from starting to exercise. Are you afraid your blood sugar will go too low if you start an exercise program? Or that you’re too out of shape and will be sore afterwards? You can work around any barrier, including these, Shahar says. You and your doctor may need to adjust your medication, or at least its timing, if you start an exercise program — which is another reason to talk to your doctor first. Keep in mind that if you start slowly and gradually increase your routine, you will be capable of exercise and won’t be sore, Shahar adds.
5 . Know the different types of exercises in a comprehensive plan. The best exercise plan for diabetes, Shahar says, is one that includes a mix of aerobic and strength training. Aerobic exercises, such as walking, swimming, jogging, hiking, and dancing, can improve endurance. In addition, strength training — exercises that use weights or resistance bands — are essential to preserve or build muscle and increase your metabolism. To also improve flexibility, incorporate stretching exercises and yoga.
6 . Decide what’s realistic for you. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that people with type 2 diabetes create an exercise plan that provides at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week. If you’re overweight and need to shed some pounds, aim for 60 to 90 minutes (divided into multiple bouts per day if necessary) of exercise six days a week.
7 . These guidelines can be overwhelming to some people: For instance, if you've been rather sedentary, trying to reach such a goal in the first week is unrealistic. Rather, set short-term goals — reaching each one will give you a sense of accomplishment and confidence.
8 . Then, find the time of day that is best for your schedule and an exercise style that fits your preferences. If you’re uncomfortable exercising in public, a plan that includes a group class at the gym probably isn't the right choice for you — opt for home-based workouts instead. To create an exercise plan you can stick to, it should match your abilities, schedule, and likes and dislikes.
9 . Find your own motivation. Focus on the specific exercise benefits that mean something to you. Shahar suggests: “I am more positive. I sleep better at night. I have more energy. I feel less stressed at work. I take less insulin when I exercise.” It is important to have at least three positive thoughts related to exercise to be able to make a behavior change and stick with your new active lifestyle, she adds. Looking for a long-term goal? “Many people want to be there for their kids when they graduate from school or get married,” Shahar says. Identify a motivational goal like this to help you get started with exercise and improve your overall health, and you will, she says.
10 . An exercise buddy can also provide motivation, keep you accountable, and make exercising more fun. Make a date to meet a friend at the gym or to go for a walk around your neighborhood after dinner.
11. Choose an activity you enjoy. Pick something you find fun or interesting. Shahar also suggests starting with an activity that requires little financial investment — if you change your mind, you can easily switch to another activity to help manage your diabetes. That’s why brisk walking is often a good start, Shahar says. You can walk anywhere with just a pair of good sneakers. Another tip: Try online exercise videos or borrow DVDs from your public library to exercise right in your living room. Dance classes, yoga, and water workouts are other popular activities to consider.
12 . Ink in exercise. Make the commitment by writing your workout time on your daily calendar just like you would a doctor’s appointment or a lunch date. If you can’t manage 30 minutes a day, shoot for 20, Shahar says. Another way to overcome the time obstacle is to break up your exercise into 10-minute intervals — research shows that these exercise “bites” may be just as beneficial as exercising for 30 minutes at once.
13 . Stay hydrated. When you have diabetes and you exercise, getting enough fluids is a must. “If you become dehydrated, it can affect the concentration of glucose in your blood,” Shahar says. Also, you want to keep a source of quick sugar on hand — if your blood sugar goes too low (hypoglycemia) when you’re exercising, you'll need an instant boost.
14 . Start slow. Once you’ve created an exercise plan, take it one step at a time, the ADA suggests. If you overexert yourself, you could become exhausted or injured, as well as discouraged. Increase your endurance over time. If you’ve never been consistently active, start with just five minutes a day, and then gradually increase to 10, then 15, and so on until you reach your goal. An exercise plan should be challenging, but not overwhelming or impossible.
15 . Listen to your body. If the exercise you’re doing is causing you discomfort, then stop. If the pain or discomfort continues to occur each time you do that exercise, try making modifications or talk with a personal trainer for suggestions. If you ever feel faint or experience shortness of breath or chest pain that doesn’t stop with rest, call 911.
16 . Track your progress. Keep a log of your physical activity — how long you walked or how many miles you covered, or what you did at the gym each time you were there. Review the log weekly and monthly — seeing your progress will inspire you and help keep you motivated. Revamp your goals as needed, the ADA states.
Start Exercising and Reap Rewards:
17 . You won’t see results overnight, but you’ll start to notice more energy and an improved sense of well-being within a few weeks of starting to exercise regularly. Be patient and you may even find yourself excited about your exercise routine. Who knows? It could become your favorite part of the day.