Staying healthy together

When starting your fitness journey, it can be challenging at first. Sheana Abrahams suggests getting a training buddy – partner, family member or friend – to help make it less of a burden. Training with someone will make exercise fun and gives you the support you need, and allows both of you to hold each other accountable for every training session. Sheana shares the benefits of exercise and provides tips on how to support each other and how to stay on this fitness journey together.

What are the benefits of exercise?

Where to start? Before you start any exercise, make sure you have spoken to your doctor and that he/she has cleared you for exercise and set out clear guidelines. If there are any other complications, or certain limitations have been set by your doctor, you should consider obtaining a personalised exercise program prescribed by a health professional, e.g. a biokineticist, to make sure that you’re doing the right exercise for your type of diabetes and at the right intensity level.

Let’s look at what some of the benefits are:

  • Better control of your diabetes and blood glucose levels: when you exercise, your muscles use glucose for energy. That being said, it is important to constantly check your blood sugar levels when you exercise. Physical activity may affect your blood sugar levels both during and after exercise, so make sure you check it regularly.
  • It can help avoid long-term complications: by exercising, you are in turn controlling your blood glucose levels, which is important to help prevent long-term complications such as kidney disease, nerve pain and heart problems.

Other benefits of exercise are:

  • Helps lower blood pressure
  • Better control of weight
  • Stronger bones
  • Stronger and leaner muscles
  • Exercise gives you more energy
  • Helps improve your mood
  • Makes you sleep better
  • Helps with stress management
  • Helps prevent diabetes in family members by lowering their risk factors.

What exercise can you do?

There are three types of exercises that you should do: aerobic; strength/resistance training; and stretching. Your aim should be to have a good balance of all three1.

Examples of aerobic exercises are:

  • Walking
  • Jogging/running
  • Tennis
  • Swimming
  • Dancing
  • Cycling, etc.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines say that you should aim to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week. Remember, this does not have to be done in one go, you can split the 30 minutes up throughout the day, for example you can do 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes in the afternoon, and 10 minutes in the evening. As you get fitter, you can gradually build up to doing exercise for a continuous 30 minutes.

Be creative with your exercise; go for a walk in the park, or after dinner get the whole family to walk together, put the music on and dance, walk with a friend, take the dog for a walk, or go for a nice jog near the beach. The more fun exercise is, the more you’ll stick to it. Find activities that you really love and enjoy, and ask your friend, partner or family to do the exercises with you. This will help keep you motivated.

Strength training

Once you have started doing your aerobic training and you’re managing to fit in 30 minutes most days of the week, chat to your doctor about adding strength training to your exercise regime.

Simple strength training on at least two days of the week is important in Type 2 diabetes as it helps to control the blood sugar levels and improves the action of the body’s own insulin2. Strength training builds lean muscle, and it also helps to maintain strong healthy bones.

Strength training doesn’t mean that you need to lift weights, you can use your own body weight to build up strength. Using your own body weight, you can do exercises such as squats, push-ups, lunges, crunches or sit-ups.

When you’re starting a strength training program, make sure that it is prescribed specifically for you. Always seek advice from your doctor, biokineticist or personal trainer who has experience in working with people who have diabetes. It’s important for you to start with the right exercises and the right intensity as well as being taught how to do the exercise correctly. Doing strength training for 20-30 minutes two or three times a week is sufficient1.

Flexibility training

Flexibility training can help prevent pain, stiffness, and injury of muscles and joints1. Stretching before and after training reduces muscle tenderness and relaxes your muscles2. Yoga is a great activity to do to help increase your flexibility.

Exercise safety

  • Remember to start slowly, especially if you have not exercised before.
  • Check your blood sugar before and after exercise until you’re aware of how your body responds to exercise4.
  • Do a nice warm up before training and a cool down after training.
  • Remember to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise4.
  • Be prepared for any episodes of low blood sugar. Always have something sweet with you that can increase your blood sugar level4.
  • Always carry a cell phone with you when exercising in case of an emergency4.
  • Do not exercise in extremely hot or cold temperatures.
  • Wear proper shoes and socks to protect your feet when doing any physical activity4.

Remember to be conscious of your body, if you become short of breath, dizzy or light-headed, stop exercising. Seek advice from your doctor if you continue to have any of the above symptoms or feelings or experience any other unusual problems4.

What can you do as a partner, family member or friend?

  • Talk to your partner, family member or friend who has diabetes about seeing the doctor before starting an exercise program. This will allow him/her to know their exercise limits and from there you can both set realistic goals and choose the right exercises for the type of diabetes.
  • Suggest going for walks a few days in the evening after work.
  • Instead of going out and getting takeaways, take a nice walk together or do a fun activity and then make a healthy meal.
  • Sit down and work on your training plan together, set your goals, and decide on the exercises that both of you can do. Make it a team effort.
  • Encourage your friend, partner or family member who has diabetes to do his/her blood checks before, during and after exercise, and to keep an exercise journal and write down all training sessions and blood glucose readings.
  • Encourage each other to make exercise a daily habit, and choose fun activities to do together that you both enjoy.
  • Get educated about diabetes, know the signs and symptoms of low blood sugar and learn what to do in these situations.
  • Constantly acknowledge your partner, friend or family who has diabetes, and let them know how proud you are of them for keeping up with their exercise regime, and remind them how this is an important part of managing their diabetes3.

Any chronic illness can have a profound impact on the family member, partner or friend. Looking at ways to stay active and healthy can be a fun and rewarding journey that you can all take together.

MEET OUR EXPERT - Sheana Abrahams

Sheana Abrahams studied a BSc. Sport and Exercise Science and then completed a BSc. (Honours) Biokinetics. Based in Cape Town, she the Head of Health and Wellness at GetSmarter, and frequently presents the fitness segment on the Expresso Show on SABC 3.