Editor’s Note: Christel is a blogger, personal trainer, diabetes advocate, fitness bikini champion and fitness personality. She has been living with Type 1 diabetes since 1997.
Most of us like the idea of exercising and being active. We know that it’s good for us and that we probably should turn it up a notch, but there is so much information out there on what to do, when to do it, fancy new diets, etc., that it’s hard to know what to believe.
When you then throw in Type 1 diabetes, it may feel like information overload and I unfortunately do see people just give up sometimes. It’s simply too much and there’s too little guidance on what to do and how to successfully exercise with diabetes.
In this post, I’ll try to give you the tools you need to get started on a safe and effective workout routine.
Set realistic goals
Goal setting is one of the most overlooked, but in my opinion most important, factors in successfully starting a workout regime, whether you have Type 1 diabetes or not.
Just wanting to be healthy and fit is a noble goal, but it’s not specific enough to keep you motivated and give you a clear path to success. I always ask my clients to spend the time necessary to think about what you really want and write down very specific short and long-term goals. The key word here is to be realistic.
A long-term goal might be to run a marathon while a short-term goal might be a 5K. It could be improving your strength by X%, do 10 pushups, be able to walk around the block without being winded, lose X pounds, or whatever is important and motivating for you. There are no bad health goals, only too vague ones.
When you have a clear goal, you can start working towards it, measure your progress, and make changes to your plan if you have to. Without a clear goal, you could do the same thing forever and not know if you’re getting anywhere.
Use resistance training to improve your diabetes management
I’m a big advocate of resistance training. I even compete in fitness competitions so I definitely practice what I preach. I believe that resistance training is the most effective way to get in shape and improve your diabetes management.
The secret to resistance training is this: it will not only make you stronger, it will also improve your body composition and significantly improve your insulin sensitivity. This means that you need less insulin, so it makes it much easier to control blood sugar fluctuations.
When you start a new resistance training routine (or any other kind of exercise), you will of course need to learn how your body and blood sugar reacts to your workouts, but when you figure that out, your diabetes management will get easier.
I have written an article about food and insulin around workouts that can help you get started.
An added benefit of resistance training is that by adding lean muscles, you increase your daily calorie burn. And while cardio makes you sweat and burn calories while you’re doing it, resistance training will extend that calorie burn way beyond the time you spend in the gym.
How to get started on resistance training
If you are new to working out, I would suggest you start with 2-3 60 minute sessions a week where you focus on full body workouts. I always start beginners out with primarily machines and moderate resistance until they understand proper form and their tendons and ligaments are used to this form of exercise. Depending on the person, we’ll move to free weights after 1-2 months.
Below is an example of a starter workout. If you have never done resistance training before or some of the exercises are new to you, I suggest you look them up online or have a professional demonstrate proper form. Most gyms have personal trainers walking around, and, for the most part, they’ll be happy to show you how to use the equipment correctly.
If you are a veteran and looking for new ideas, check out a few of my more advanced workouts:
My recommended starting workout
* “Superset” means that you do two exercises right after each other before taking your rest.
A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t do the lower repetition range (in this case 12 reps), the weight is too heavy. If you can easily do the high range (in this case 15 reps), it’s too light.
How to successfully combine exercise and good diabetes management
- Always check with your medical team that it’s safe for you to start working out and discuss your plans with your doctor/endo.
- Understand that successfully combining exercise and good diabetes management requires some upfront work on your part. We are all different and don’t necessarily react the same way to workouts, so you need to find a formula that works for you. The good news is that if you do the upfront work, you’ll have a strong foundation that will set you up for success.
Step-by-step guide to finding your formula
Step 1 – Design (or have a professional personal trainer design) a meal and exercise plan. To limit the number of new variables, I suggest you stick pretty much to the same meal and exercise plan for the first 10 days.
Step 2 – Start to write down how key factors such as what you eat and when, exercise type and duration impact your blood sugars.
Step 3 – As you start to see trends, make the needed insulin adjustments (if you are not self-managed, your medical team should be able to help you do this) and note down when you find what works. For example, most people will see their insulin sensitivity improve significantly during the 24-72 hours after a resistance training session and will need to lower their basal insulin. Some might also need to lower their insulin dose during a workout while others won’t. Test, test, test and you’ll figure out how you react.
My rule of thumb is that if I see the same thing happen twice in a row, I make a change. Like if my sugars crash every night after my workout, I’ll reduce my basal.
The important thing to accept is that you won’t get it right every time. This is a trial and error method. You will have highs and you will have lows. That’s OK! The only time that is not acceptable is if you don’t learn from your missteps or if you don’t do it safely. “By safely,” I mean check with your medical team first, increase how often you check your blood sugar, and always bring your emergency glucose with you.
Finally, have fun with it. I’ve found that resistance training not only gives me energy and helps my diabetes management, it has also become my “me time.” I look forward to my training sessions because they allow me to close out the world for a while and just use my body. If you give it a chance, I hope it can be as rewarding an experience for you as it is for me.
Read How to Reach Your Body Goals without Obsessing Over Weight by Christel or visit Christel’s The Fit Blog for more on nutrition and exercise.