Diabetes Forecast

Exercise Case Study: Bonny Damocles

By Erika Gebel, PhD , ,

Running up and down a flight of stairs for a total of two hours every day, Bonny Damocles, 74, has taken an extreme approach to fitness. But an intense exercise routine is how he's been able to manage type 2 diabetes for most of 19 years without medication.

Damocles, an engineer from Midland, Mich., emigrated from the Philippines to the United States with his wife, Nemia, in 1978. "Moving from a poor country to a wealthy country, we had a chance to enjoy all the 'good things' this country offers," says Damocles, meaning lots of fast food and no exercise. "We practically didn't move."

He went from a svelte 126 pounds on his 5-foot, 7-inch frame to a heftier 165. Then, in July 1991, Damocles lost a pound a day for two straight weeks. "I thought I had cancer," he recalls.

A trip to his family physician revealed that his blood glucose level was 468 mg/dl. The diagnosis was type 2 diabetes. The doctor wanted to start him on oral medications immediately, but Damocles balked. "I begged him to give me a few days to try something else," he says.

Damocles and his doctor made a deal. He had two weeks to rein in his blood glucose. If it didn't drastically improve, he would start the medication. Damocles was on a mission.

"In 10 days of running our stairs a daily total of two hours, my sugar readings were already in the 130s," says Damocles. At the same time, Damocles dramatically changed his eating habits, going from a fast-food-friendly diet to one grounded in fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, nuts, beans, and seaweed. "The first 10 days of my diabetic life clearly proved to me that I could confidently depend on my exercise routine as my only diabetes medication."

Could most people avoid or stop taking diabetes meds by clocking two hours of stair-running a day? Research has shown that lifestyle changes can often halt pre-diabetes in its tracks, but it's less clear whether people with type 2 can typically control blood glucose over the long term through diet and exercise alone. Plus, for many people, repetitive strain injuries might make a Damocles-like routine unsustainable. "People who tried to duplicate what I did, well, most of them got in big trouble," says Damocles. "They ended up having knee problems."

Even for him, the routine was difficult, and after a while, Damocles began to wonder if such extremes were still necessary. "After four years, my exercise routine was so effective, I felt cured. All my readings were normal," he says. "For the next 3 1/2 years, I sort of went back to my old self."

But Damocles was not cured, and after a few years of little exercise, his blood glucose levels crept back up. He didn't know how bad it had gotten until he was tested and saw that his blood glucose was again in the 400s. "That was a warning," he says. "Since then, I really became dedicated to taking good care of myself and went back to two hours a day."

Damocles says he is now free of diabetes complications. His knees started bothering him recently; he's not sure if the culprit is overuse, old age, or both. So, he's replaced stair-running with lower-impact exercises like running in place and strength training. So far, he's been able to control his diabetes with this new approach; the A1C (average blood glucose over the past two to three months) from his last checkup was 5.8 percent, well within the range of 7 percent or less recommended for people with diabetes by the American Diabetes Association.

Damocles doesn't recommend his unusual style of diabetes management to everyone, and indeed, it's important to check with a doctor before making big changes in your fitness routine. "My motivation is that me and my wife would like to reach 100 years old," says Damocles. "If you have that kind of goal, you have to be disciplined."



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