Diabetes: A Blessing in Disguise

Health, Home & Family
on November 23, 2008

At 50, Rick Hughey had gone a little soft around the middle. Admittedly, he loved pizza and sugary soft drinks, but he also was a devoted three-times-a-week runner. Thats why he was stunned when his doctor told him he had type 2 diabetes, a condition in which the body doesnt use insulin effectively and that more than doubles the risk of heart disease.

I was in disbelief to the point of shock, says Hughey, now 58, the owner of an advertising agency in Overland Park, Kan. And for good reasonhe certainly didnt fit the typical profile of a type 2 diabetic.

The disease, which often is hereditary and strikes people who are overweight, was absent in his family. And at 5 feet, 11 inches, Hughey weighed a slim 170 pounds and had a lifelong love of running. In fact, one of his earliest childhood memories is of racing in his backyard with his sisters.

When I run, what I feel is pure exhilaration, he says. It makes me feel alive and strong and healthy and joyful.

So, while some people newly diagnosed with diabetes may think exercise requires more blood-sugar monitoring, Hughey wanted to use his love of running to his advantage.

I thought, I want to control this and take as little medication as possible, he recalls. My doc said that daily exercise is the ideal model, so I committed to that. I knew I had to be as relentless as diabetes is, and I saw running as a path to what I needed to do. It made me more disciplined and motivated.

Hughey increased his running regimen to 1 to 3 miles, at least five times a week. He also started training for occasional track meets, competing in sprint races against others his age.

Ramping up exercise was the right decision for Hugheyand other diabetics and those at risk of developing diabetes should follow his example, says Kathy Byrne, a registered nurse who conducts community diabetes education programs in Tamarac, Fla. (pop. 55,588), and Margate, Fla. (pop. 53,909). Getting moving naturally lowers your blood-sugar level and helps your body use insulin better, both of which increase the energy that diabetes may sap, she says.

In addition to exercise, changes to diet also are crucial, as Hughey discovered. If youre eating a diet high in fiber, low in saturated fats, and throw in exercise, the body can metabolize the food and build muscle, Byrne says. Type 2 diabetes can strike anybody, and most people never expect that theyre neglecting their bodies. You think, I can eat sugar and pizza, but these are things that shouldnt be in your diet.

These days, Hughey has an exemplaryyet realisticdiabetes diet: He avoids sodas, pizza and white flour tortillas, but he still has a square of dark chocolate at lunch and a glass of wine with dinner.

You have to give up a lot, to make choices when you have diabetes. Ive done that, Hughey says. But you dont want to feel life isnt worth living. So I make a celebration of the evening meal with a glass of wine. You can splurge a little.

His disciplined eatingI go through a virtual boxcar of broccoli on an annual basisand increased running have paid off. Hugheys weight is down to 155 pounds; as a result, the hip pain he used to feel has disappeared. He takes oral medication and reads his blood sugar once a day, and feels fortunate that discipline is one of his strong points. Diabetes has made me feel healthier and more in control, he says. Its a fragile blessing, but it is a blessing.

Reducing Your Risk

Nobody wants type 2 diabetes. But with temptations such as sodas, pizzas and plump sofas, its all too easy to slip into a habit of eating more and exercising lessboth risk factors for type 2 diabetes. In fact, even 7 to 10 pounds of extra weight can increase your risk.

Not surprisingly, the more pounds we carry, the more food we eat. And the more food we eat, the harder the pancreas has to work to produce enough insulin to ensure that the foodwhich is converted to glucose, or blood sugargets into our bodys cells to produce the energy we need. Eventually, when a body needs more insulin than it can produce, the blood sugar lingers in the bloodstream, unable to get into the cells. Thats type 2 diabetes.

By keeping your weight down, by eating correctlyvegetables, fruits and whole grainsyour body is able to metabolize the sugar, says Kathy Byrne, a registered nurse.

Exercise promotes metabolism by strengthening muscles. The stronger the muscle, the more efficient it is at taking sugar from the bloodstream and removing waste.

So how much should you exercise or move? Thirty minutes of activity a day is helpful, Byrne says. Park the car far from the office. Take the stairwell. The more you do, the better.