By Mikel Theobald Reviewed by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Exercise is an important part of managing diabetes, and walking is one of the best options. It's easy to get started, and it can fit into any schedule.
For people with type 2 diabetes, regular physical activity is especially important because of the huge impact it has on maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. “A 20- to 30-minute walk can help lower blood sugar for 24 hours,” says Tami Ross, RD, LD, a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Not only can exercise make you feel better, but it can also help prevent many complications of diabetes. And you don't have to run five miles a day or lift heavy weights at the gym to benefit from it. Brisk walking — fast enough to break a light sweat and get your heart beating faster — on a regular basis can make a big difference in your overall health and how well you manage your diabetes.
The Benefits of Walking
Walking is easy, costs practically nothing (aside from a good pair of walking shoes), and can be done almost anywhere. When you have diabetes, the advantages of walking include:
Improved blood sugar control
Lower blood pressure
Improved cholesterol — lower bad cholesterol and higher good cholesterol
Fewer diabetes-related complications, such as heart disease and stroke
Weight loss and weight maintenance
Improved circulation and movement
Stress relief, better sleep, and an overall feeling of well-being
Walking Recommendations for Diabetes
The current recommendation for exercise for people with diabetes is to aim for 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise at least five days a week. Ross suggests thinking of exercise as a kind of “extended-release medicine.” That’s because 30 minutes of exercise can provide benefits for 24 hours — a good reason to not skip a day.
If you're not used to exercise, even walking, you’ll need to start slowly and build up to the suggested 30 minutes. Aim for 10 minutes a day the first week and gradually add more time as your energy allows. Try to walk three to five minutes longer each week, until you reach the goal of at least 30 minutes five days a week. Keep in mind that your total walking time can be broken up to include a 10-minute walk to the grocery store, a 10-minute walk around the block, and 10 minutes of mowing the lawn. The key is to move consistently during each 10-minute time span.
Gearing Up for Walking
Taking steps to ensure foot health is essential to a walking routine because diabetes makes you more prone to foot infections. Be sure to buy walking shoes that fit properly. Choose shoes that are sturdy yet comfortable and that provide plenty of support. Consult a specialist at a walking or running shoe store and let him or her know that you have diabetes so that you can get recommendations on the best design and fit for you. A doctor who specializes in foot care (podiatrist) can also suggest good walking shoes.
Next, consider these extras that can make walking more comfortable and more fun:
Good socks. Choose proper-fitting socks that won't bunch up or move around in your shoe. Choose fabrics that wick away moisture from your feet to keep them from getting damp.
A pedometer. This small, wearable device can help you track how many steps you take. Experts suggest that you build up to 10,000 steps a day — the equivalent of five miles. Don’t worry about reaching “five figures” right off the bat — even 4,000 to 5,000 steps a day can yield great health benefits, so pick a goal that’s right for you and build on it as your endurance increases.
A walking buddy. Walking can be more fun if you do it with someone else. Plus, a walking buddy can help keep you motivated.
Exercise log. Track your progress by keeping an exercise log book. Be sure to record your blood sugar levels before and after you walk so you can see how it affects your levels.
Other Important Walking Tips
Before you start any exercise routine, including walking, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Here are some other important tips to keep you healthy and safe:
Schedule your walk 30 to 60 minutes after a meal.
Check your blood sugar before you exercise. If it's under 100 milligrams/deciliter (mg/dL), have a snack before getting started and then wait until it’s above 100 mg/dL to start your walk. If it’s 250 mg/dL or higher, wait until it comes down to a normal range before you begin to exercise.
Check your feet for blisters, bumps, cuts, sores, or redness before and after every walk. If you notice any problems with your feet, don't walk that day and call your doctor. You may want to try swimming or another form of exercise until your feet heal.
Follow your doctor’s recommendations for keeping your toenails appropriately trimmed, so as not to injure yourself while walking.
Stretch before you walk.
Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your walk to stay hydrated.
Bring glucose tablets or a snack or drink, such as hard candy, fruit juice, or regular soda, in case your blood sugar drops while you're walking.
Wear a medical identification bracelet or necklace and carry personal identification with you.
Walk in a safe place, away from traffic and with other people around. If the weather isn’t cooperating, take a walk at the mall.
Walking is an easy way to help control your diabetes and get in shape. Make a plan, find a friend, and get moving!