Getting started with exercise

senior woman walking

Exercise doesn’t have to mean breaking a sweat at the gym.

Any physical activity counts towards improving your health and managing your diabetes.

Developing your exercise program and getting motivated for movement.

Getting started with an exercise program can seem challenging, especially when you are starting exercise for the first time or getting back into a workout routine. Daily life demands – like long work hours or caring for family – can often keep us from making our health a priority. We all know that exercise is good for us, so how do we overcome these obstacles that get in the way? First, it helps to understand what counts as exercise – and how to design an exercise program that works for you.

Where Do I Begin with Exercise?

Exercise is any activity that gets your body moving. Exercise doesn’t have to mean breaking a sweat at the gym or running a marathon. Any physical activity counts towards improving your health and managing your diabetes – something is always better than nothing. So if you are just starting exercise for the first time, remember to start at a level that is comfortable for you. The first step is increasing your daily activity levels:

  • Limit sedentary activities such as television or computer time.
  • Do stretching exercise, or leg lifts while watching TV.
  • Take the stairs.
  • Get off the elevator one flight away from your destination and walk up the last flight.
  • Do errands by food or bicycle.
  • Park your car at the far side of the parking lot.
  • Get off the bus one stop away from your destination, and walk the rest of the way.
  • Take an after-dinner walk with family or friends.
  • Spend part of your lunch hour walking.
  • Walk around the perimeter of the mall before shopping.
  • Schedule family time doings something active.

How Do I Build an Exercise Program?

To help you gradually work towards a more structured exercise routine, first begin by asking yourself these questions:

  • What do I like to do?
    Make a list of exercises you could do and that sound enjoyable. What physical activities were fun for you as a child? Do you like being in a group setting or working out alone?
  • What fits my lifestyle and my schedule?
    Consider your budget, the weather conditions in your area, clothing or equipment needs, and transportation logistics.
  • Do I have any physical limitations that require exercise restrictions from my doctor?
    To exercise safely, discuss your exercise plan with your healthcare provider and get medical clearance.

Once you have selected some activities, begin with small amounts of increased activity, and gradually work towards a more structured exercise routine. For example, even a 5 minute walk to the corner is a reasonable place to start! Then week by week, try walking for 5 minutes more until you reach a goal walking routine of at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week. Think F.I.T. to put your exercise plan into action and gradually build up your routine, step-by-step:

  • Frequency: Try to increase the frequency of your exercise sessions, by increasing the number of days a week that you exercise.
  • Time: Strive to increase the amount of time that you devote to each exercise session.
  • Intensity: Then, gradually exercise at a higher intensity. Perceived exertion can be a way for you to monitor the intensity of your workouts. This means you should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising, without being in a state of breathlessness.

What Types of Exercise Should I Include?

To get the most health benefits from exercise, choose an exercise program that includes these types of activities:

Aerobic exercise consists of using the major muscle groups in a continuous rhythmic fashion for at least 10 minutes at a time. Examples include brisk walking, swimming, bicycling, jogging, dancing, low impact aerobics and armchair aerobics. The goal is at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise. Start modestly and then work up to sessions that last 30 minutes or more. The goal frequency is at least every other day. Daily exercise works best to promote weight loss.

Resistance exercise is also called strength training. Resistance exercise helps control blood sugar levels by improving insulin sensitivity. Resistance training also helps to tone muscles, improve muscle strength, and strengthen bones. Examples include weight training with barbells, weight machines, and elastic bands. Calisthenics such as sit-ups, pull-ups and push-ups use your own body weight as the resistance force. Try to do three sets of 8-10 repetitions. Target all the major muscle groups. Gradually work up to sessions that are 15-30 minutes in length. The goal frequency is every other day.

Warm ups and Cool Downs. Exercise sessions should ideally start with a warming up period to get the muscles, joints and ligaments ready for your workout. Warming up can just be a lower intensity of your planned workout. For example, start walking slowly for 5 minutes to warm up for your quicker paced walk or run. Cool down at the end of your exercise session by slowing the pace of your activity until your heart rate and breathing are back to baseline.

Stretching is especially important for people with diabetes. When stretching, focus on each major muscle group and hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds without bouncing. You can stretch before and after your workouts.

Getting Motivated for Movement

You have decided to make exercise a priority because you know it’s a powerful step at managing your diabetes. But making any new change can feel nerve-racking when you don’t have the confidence of experience under your belt. When starting a new behavior change like exercise, you may first need to anticipate obstacles that may make it hard to maintain the change. These obstacles may be different for different people. Next, developing an exercise plan and setting rewards for achieving your plan can help keep you motivated and on track. Consider the following tips for getting motivated for movement:

  • Make a list of your obstacles, and try to develop solutions for working through them. Share your list with your health care provider, who may help give you more ideas.
  • Review your weekly schedule and find a realistic time to fit in exercise. Plan time for it daily, and mark it on your calendar.
  • Set a specific goal for your next exercise session and keep a record of your progress each week. For example, take an extra lap around the track or add 10 minutes to your walking time.
  • Make a plan to continue your exercise program in spite of interruptions. For example, if you are traveling out of town, check on a fitness center in or near your hotel.
  • Choose a variety of different exercise options to prevent boredom. Make a list of indoor and outdoor activities that you enjoy so you can exercise despite changes in the weather.
  • Spice up your exercise routine by taking an exercise class such as aerobics, kickboxing, or spinning. Check the library or bookstore for exercise books, and exercise videos or DVDs.
  • Invest in a pedometer to see how much walking you do in a regular day. Challenge yourself by setting goals to increase your next walk by 500 steps.
  • Set up a buddy system with a friend. Meet frequently to walk, or to take a fitness class together. You are more likely to show up when you make a commitment to another person.
  • Spend positive family time together and make physical activity a family event. Set aside time to take family walks, play a friendly game of touch football, bicycle together, or splash around at the local pool.
  • Reward yourself for meeting your exercise goals.  Try non-food rewards like buying something you have wanted, going to a movie, giving yourself some quiet time.

Self-assessment Quiz

Self assessment quizzes are available for topics covered in this website. To find out how much you have learned about  Diabetes and Exercise, take our self assessment quiz when you have completed this section.  The quiz is multiple choice. Please choose the single best answer to each question. At the end of the quiz, your score will display. If your score is over 70% correct, you are doing very well. If your score is less than 70%, you can return to this section and review the information.

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