Starting an Exercise Program With Diabetes

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Exercise works the same way. Taking that first step can be hard. Maybe you've never exercised. Maybe you used to but stopped. Maybe you've just been diagnosed with diabetes and feel like you'll never be fit again. We've all got plenty of reasons not to exercise. We're:

  • Too old.
  • Too fat.
  • Too weak.
  • Too sick.
  • Too busy.
  • Too tired.

What we need to remember is that it's never too late. With few exceptions, even if you're disabled or injured, you can still improve your level of fitness. Once you get going, you'll be amazed how quickly your excuses fade.


Too old? Join a class with others in your age group. There are seniors' mall-walking clubs, water exercise classes, senior stretch programs, even chair aerobics classes. Check your local YMCA, YWCA, or county recreation program. Nothing in your area? Start your own program with a partner, such as a relative or friend.

Too fat? If you feel too awkward or embarrassed to exercise, join the club. Most people feel slightly silly when they start out. Exercise is not just for skinny minnies. In fact, once you get going, look around. Few regular exercisers have perfect physiques. Most fitness buffs will respect your efforts and root for your success. If you're trying to lose weight, even a modest amount of regular physical activity can help.

Too weak? Regular physical activity will help you have more strength and energy for daily tasks.

Too sick? Of course, you can't exercise when you're ill or when your blood sugar levels are out of control. But once you are feeling better, regular physical activity will help you stay well. If you stick with it, you may even find you don't get sick as much and may need less medication.

Too busy? You don't have to spend hours exercising to see a health benefit. Depending on your fitness level, you may need to start with as little as 10 minutes of walking three times a week. If you really want to make a change, you can find ways to get more activity into your daily routines. Park farther away from the entrances at the mall. Plan an after-dinner walk with someone you want to talk to. Ride a stationary bike while you watch the morning or evening news.

Too tired? Believe it or not, regular physical activity will give you more energy. Toning your muscles and conditioning your heart, lungs, and blood vessels will better equip you to handle the work and stress of daily life.

Lots of people think of exercise programs the way they think of diets. They plan to get in shape for a certain event. Or they join an exercise class hoping it will help them lose 5 or 10 pounds. But physical activity and healthful eating are habits we need to stay with over the long haul. That doesn't mean doing the same exercise or eating the same meals forever.

You may enjoy trying new forms of physical activity, in the same way new recipes are fun. Or you may find an activity that works for you and stay with it.

The First Step

The first step to fitness is a visit to the doctor. Before you begin any exercise program, get a thorough medical exam. The exam should check:

  • Blood pressure
  • Blood fat levels
  • Glycohemoglobin and current blood glucose level
  • Health of heart and circulatory system
  • Body composition (fat versus lean)
  • Eyes
  • Feet

Your doctor should help determine your level of fitness. You need to know what types of exercise or exercise programs are good choices for you. Some complications of diabetes make certain types of physical activity bad choices. The benefits of an exercise program need to outweigh the risks.

If possible, get an exercise prescription. This is an exercise plan that takes into account your current level of fitness, special health concerns, and your diabetes treatment plan. Your health care providers are your best resources.

On the next page, learn to set goals for your exercise routine.


Set Goals

Goals help give shape to your exercise plan. They give you something specific to work toward. Reaching a goal marks your success. Setting new goals keeps you going. Start out by asking yourself why you plan to exercise. Do you want to:

  • Feel better?
  • Move easier?
  • Lose weight?
  • Get stronger?
  • Need more energy?
  • Reduce stress?
  • Stay fit while learning to live with diabetes?
  • Reduce your risk of diabetes complications such as heart disease?
  • Get your doctor or partner to stop nagging you?

Once you know why you plan to exercise, talk with your doctor about realistic ways to reach your goal. With your doctor or exercise specialist, you can plan an exercise routine with your goal in mind. Your program will need to take into account your diabetes management routine.


Your doctor and diabetes educator can help you:

  • Plan the best times to exercise
  • Learn when to test your blood sugar levels
  • Understand what your test results mean in terms of exercise
  • Avoid problems with low blood sugar levels
  • Learn to inspect your feet before and after exercise
  • Manage other specific health concerns

Here's how this might work. Suppose you have type 2 diabetes and are overweight. You work in an office and drive to work. You don't have an exercise plan. Your doctor says that if you lose some weight and start to exercise, you may be able to improve your blood sugar control. After your physical exam and an exercise stress test, the doctor says you can start a walking program.

Your health goal: to lose 10 pounds. Your fitness goal: to stay with a regular walking program for 3 months, building up to 30 minutes of walking five times a week. Current fitness level: couch potato.

Now you need to break your fitness goal down into smaller steps. Make your goals realistic, measurable, and achievable. Your long-term goal is to walk for 30 minutes five times a week. Your short-term goal is to walk 10 minutes without stopping three times a week for a month.

Write your goal down. Keep a log, or diary, of your exercise. You can buy a special notebook, write on your calendar, or make a note in your blood glucose record book. You might also want to jot down how you feel while exercising, or any problems you have. This gives you something to look over when you're ready to make changes.

When your goal period is up, look at your log. Were there good days and bad? Did you start feeling different? As you set your new goal, use your log to decide on changes. Do you need to reduce your level of physical activity? Or are you ready to move up a notch? Discuss changes with your health care team. Be sure to reward yourself when you reach a goal.

Knowing that physical activity is something you'll do for the rest of your life can help. You can take the long view. If your first attempt doesn't work, try again. Do something different. Join a class or a mall walkers club. Think about what you enjoy doing and find a fitness activity that matches. Do you like to exercise to music? To TV? Alone or with friends? Outdoors or indoors? There are so many choices, you can find something to enjoy. You know that regular physical activity is good for your health. It also brings fringe benefits such as:

  • Looking better.
  • Meeting new friends.
  • Escaping from the daily grind.
  • Learning new skills.
  • Reducing stress.

Still, after you've been exercising for a while, you'll no doubt go through a spell where your motivation slips. Anyone who has a long-term exercise program has "off" days, times when he or she just doesn't want to stick with it. Or you may have a setback due to illness or injury.

When it happens to you, don't mistake it for failure. Give yourself a break. Call an exercise buddy. Review your exercise log. Read an inspirational book. Try a new activity. Join a class. Celebrate your successes. Treat yourself to something new to wear when you exercise — a new T-shirt, even new shoes. Before you know it, your exercise slump will be over.

To learn more on how you can easily incorporate exercise into your day, read The "I Hate to Exercise" Book from the American Diabetes Association.


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  • The American Diabetes Association