Exercise is safe—and highly recommended—for most people with type 2 diabetes, including those with complications. Along with diet and medication, exercise will help you lower blood sugar and lose weight.
However, the prospect of diving into a workout routine may be intimidating. If you’re like many newly diagnosed type 2 diabetics, you may not have exercised in years.
If that’s the case, don’t worry: It’s fine to start slow and work up. These tips will help you ease back into exercise and find a workout plan that works for you.
2. Try quick workouts
As long as you’re totaling 30 minutes of exercise each day
, several brief workouts are fine, says George Griffing, MD, professor of endocrinology at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
“We need people with diabetes up and moving,” Dr. Griffing says. “If you can do your exercise in one 30 minute stretch, fine. But if not, break it up into increments you can manage that add up to at least 30 minutes each day.”
3. Focus on overall activity
Increase activity in general—such as walking or climbing stairs—rather than a particular type of exercise.
However, don’t rely on housework or other daily activity as your sole exercise. Too often, people overestimate the amount of exercise they get and underestimate the amount of calories they consume. (A step-counting pedometer can help.)
4. Get a pedometer
Stanford University researchers conducted a review
of 26 studies looking at the use of pedometers as motivation for physical activity. Published in 2007, the review found that people who used a pedometer increased their activity by 27%.
Having a goal of 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) was important, even if the goal wasn’t reached. Pedometer users lost more weight, had a greater drop in blood pressure, and walked about 2,500 steps more per day than those who didn’t use a pedometer.
5. Work out with a friend
Working out with friends can be an important motivator, particularly for people over 60, according to Vicki Conn, PhD, the associate dean for research at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., who has studied diabetes and exercise.
Having a friend call or setting up an exercise “contract” with a buddy may help. “One of the things we found with our meta-analysis is that behavioral strategies work better; that means setting up some sort of stimulus in the environment where you exercise,” says Conn.
6. Set specific, attainable goals
For example, you might set a goal of walking 10 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but…setting up very specific goals like that helps people a lot more than telling people, ‘Gee, you’ve got to exercise more,’ ” says Conn.
7. Reward yourself
Rather than focusing on the bad things that could happen if you don’t exercise, reward yourself for reaching your goals. You might say “OK, if I exercise 10 minutes, three times a week for the next three weeks, I’ll call my sister-in-law who lives in Australia,” says Conn.
Don’t hold out for weight loss as an emotional “reward.” Focus on other benefits, such as having more energy or enjoying the outdoors when you walk.
8. Use visual cues
Put a note on the refrigerator or keep your walking shoes next to the back door as a reminder to go for a walk and it’ll be more likely to happen.
9. Write it all down
Write down your goals, be specific, and keep a record every time you do exercise, says Conn.
Record on your calendar every day whether you exercised for 10 or 15 minutes or more.
10. Join a class
A class is good because there is an exercise leader and someone to call for emergency help, if necessary, says Conn.
“There is a structured experience exercising and they will learn how their body will react and then they will grow more confident to go out and exercise on their own,” she says.
11. Don’t set goals too high
“It’s much better to set a lower goal and be successful at it,” says Conn. “That increases one’s sense of confidence. Then you can set a slightly higher goal the next time. You are much more likely to be successful if you start with small, easily attainable goals and gradually increase them.”
12, Look at the big picture
Working up to a moderate amount of exercise quickly isn’t that important in terms of your health.
“What really matters is next year, you are doing it all the time,” says Conn. “Getting there eventually in a way that you are able to stay with it is what is important because it is long-term behavior change that has health consequences.”
13. Change one behavior at a time
You’re more likely to be successful if you focus on changing one behavior at a time, rather than everything at once (like taking medication, checking your feet, switching your diet, and
“What we found—and this is across many studies with thousands of people—if the study focuses only on changing one behavior, namely exercise, they get twice as much of an improvement in their hemoglobin A1C,” says Conn.
14. Get an exercise “prescription”
In this case, a fitness or exercise physiologist can measure how physically fit you are and prescribe a specific intensity of exercise and how to progress to the next level.
“It’s based on that individual’s fitness stake,” says Conn. “For a person that is very unfit, and has not been exercising, the exercise prescription will be at a low moderate intensity and then move to a slightly higher intensity and longer duration.”
16. Connect with a “mentor” or become one
Ask your doctor or diabetes educator to match you with a person with type 2 diabetes who has been successful at exercising and/or losing weight. They may have exercise or weight loss tips that work.
16. Test yourself regularly
Keep up with your hemoglobin A1C and blood glucose testing. Good test results can encourage you to keep with an exercise program, even when it feels tedious.