The best prescription for diabetes might be as simple as hitting the dance floor. At least that’s the idea behind Dance Out Diabetes, the San Francisco, California-based nonprofit organization founded by Theresa Garnero, a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator, who encourages diabetics to shimmy, dip and twirl their way to better health—and have fun while doing it.
With more than 25 years of nursing experience, Garnero has counseled numerous patients in a health-care setting. But she realized there still was work to be done outside the hospital. “I stepped back and looked at what was missing in the field,” she says. “In the medical world, we do a pretty good job of diagnosing and treating diabetes, but there isn’t as much of an emphasis on prevention and ongoing management. I wanted to change that.”
A former figure skating champion who once trained with Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, Garnero always has been passionate about dance and choreography. So when looking for a safe, fun and effective way to encourage her patients to lead healthier lives, dance was the obvious answer.
“Dancing is not only effective, but fun,” says Garnero, 49. “When people dance, they get lost in the music and forget that they’re moving their bodies. It feels more like play than exercise.”
In addition to sponsoring free monthly dance classes in a variety of genres and styles, Dance Out Diabetes, which Garnero launched in 2010, offers access to health care at no charge.
“Having access to care is crucial for many of our patients,” she says, adding that participants can meet with an on-site certified diabetes educator who checks glucose, blood pressure, blood sugar and weight, and answers questions about diabetes management.
Dance Out Diabetes also fosters a supportive, non-judgmental environment where individuals of all ages and abilities can come together and dance. “Our organization is very community- and family-centric,” Garnero says, adding that 30 percent of attendees come to support somebody with diabetes. “It’s a fun, diabetes-friendly place to exercise.”
Garnero says response to the program has been tremendously positive. Of those who return each month, 92 percent have increased their physical activity and 52 percent of those either have lost or maintained weight. “One individual lost 18 pounds over the course of a year!” she says.
A tireless advocate in the fight against diabetes, Garnero is the full-time nurse manager of the Madison Clinic for Pediatric Diabetes at the University of California, San Francisco. “One in three children who were born after year 2000 will be diagnosed with diabetes,” she says. “We have a pandemic on our hands.”
Always searching for new and innovative ways to raise awareness about diabetes, Garnero has written and illustrated a series of award-winning books that tackle the subject with a touch of humor. “Diabetes is a challenging disease, and it was important for me to bring some joy into the diabetes community,” she explains.
In 2009, “Your First Year with Diabetes,” which was published by the American Diabetes Association, garnered three national awards. “I think people found the book’s humorous tone refreshing,” Garnero says. “Diabetes is such a negative disease, and people are constantly bombarded with negative messages about it. But using therapeutic humor can be a way to show some positivity.”
One of her most important messages is how crucial exercise is to good health. Dance Out Diabetes is beginner-friendly, but if you’re intimidated by starting a new workout routine, even small changes can make a difference, she says.
“Start by setting small goals. Figure out how you can you fit a little bit of physical activity into your day,” says Garnero, whose personal exercise routine includes walking to work instead of commuting by car.
So whether it’s shaking your body to the rhythms of Latin American music or taking the dog on a long, leisurely walk, it’s important to move. “Our bodies were made to be active,” she says. “Regular exercise is important for preventing and managing a wide range of diseases, not just diabetes.”