Exercise for Diabetics

Health, Home & Family
on October 30, 2005

When Frank Norwood, of Port Townsend, Wash., (pop. 8,334), was diagnosed with diabetes 10 years ago, he began an exercise program immediately. Today, Norwood, 90, continues to work out several times a week at the local hospital or on the golf course.

“My diabetes educator gave me the motivation,” Norwood says. “She told me to get into a program or I wasn’t going to get well.”

Exercise through a supervised wellness program is a good way to manage diabetes and other chronic illnesses such as heart disease and lung problems.

Hundreds of hospitals across the nation offer supervised exercise and wellness programs. Many of these programs provide the expertise of exercise physiologists, physical therapists or certified personal trainers, as well as the guidance of diabetes educators, registered nurses and respiratory therapists.

Most supervised programs also offer a variety of exercise equipment, including treadmills, stationary and recumbent bicycles, rowing and step machines, weights, and exercise bands and balls to help you attain optimal health.

The staff guides you through your personal routine, which may include aerobic exercise to improve the condition of your heart and lungs, light weight training with hand weights to strengthen your muscles and increase endurance, and proper stretching techniques for better flexibility.

“Even 10 percent more endurance can improve quality of life,” says Dr. Sandra Smith-Poling, a general practitioner in Port Townsend.

During an exercise session, your blood pressure and heart rate are checked, and some people have heart rhythm and oxygen status monitored as well. As a diabetic, you learn how your body responds to activity by taking blood sugar readings before and after exercise. This will help you determine if your blood sugar drops with exercise and if you need to have a snack during or after your workout.

“The exercise has been very beneficial for me,” Norwood says. “I attend quite regularly. Otherwise, I’d probably be a couch potato.”

He encourages other diabetics to get into exercise as quickly as possible and to stay with it. “I look forward to going to class,” he adds. “The exercise, and the fact that I have a doctor that keeps track of me, helps control my diabetes.”

Diabetics can be introduced to a wellness program in a variety of ways. If you are hospitalized with diabetes or another chronic illness and the hospital offers exercise, an employee may visit you during your stay to tell you about the program. Otherwise, you can ask your doctor to refer you to a local program, or you can call the wellness department directly. If you are a candidate, they will contact your physician for a referral.

Before you start supervised exercise, you’ll have an interview with a nurse or other qualified staff member, and an appropriate workout will be designed for you. Since program costs vary and insurance payments differ from plan to plan, a schedule of payments approved by your insurance carrier (including Medicare and supplemental), as well as other payment arrangements, will be discussed during your interview.

Everyone’s body benefits from exercise: The heart gets stronger, circulation and cholesterol levels are improved, blood pressure and heart rate are lowered, bone loss is reduced, and weight loss is possible. And for diabetics, there’s more good news. Exercise can help control blood sugar levels and reduce the overall need for insulin. It also can improve glucose tolerance.

Still, people with diabetes should consult a physician before starting an exercise program, so blood glucose control and other diabetes complications can be considered in the design of a workout regime.

“Anyone embarking on a formal exercise program should undergo a thorough medical evaluation,” says Mitzi Hazard, a physical therapist and certified diabetes educator in Sequim, Wash. (pop. 4,334). “Before beginning exercises with me, I request a prescription from their doctor.”

To locate a supervised exercise program near you, start by calling the nearest hospital. If it doesn’t have one, its staff may be able to refer you to a hospital that does, or they may know of a local physical therapy office that has some type of supervised classes.

You also can ask your doctor or nurse, call your library or search for diabetes wellness programs on the Internet. If there are no supervised classes in your area, ask your physician to refer you to a certified diabetes educator who can work with you to develop a safe fitness routine that you can do on your own or use in a community gym.

“Regular exercise will bring your body as close as it will ever be to not knowing it has diabetes,” Hazard says.