Diabetes Forecast

Building Muscles Helps Control Blood Glucose

How to get started with easy strength training moves at home

By Kirsten C. Ward, MS, RCEP, CD , ,
woman holding light dumbbell


You're probably aware of the health benefits of aerobic exercise—the kind of movement that gets the heart and lungs working. But you may not realize just how important strength training is, too.

Strength training, also known as resistance training, builds muscle and is part of a balanced fitness routine. To build muscle mass, you must move a part of the body against a force, which could be a weight or a stretchy elastic band. Your own body weight can provide that force—such as when you do a push-up, using your arms to lift and lower your torso. Strength training can be modified for a variety of abilities, and can be adjusted to avoid injuries. An exercise physiologist can help you customize a plan.

Answers to common misperceptions about strength training may help provide that extra push to get you started:

Myth: To build muscles, you need to lift weights at the gym.

Fact: You can do strength-training exercises with weights, exercise bands, even soup cans—at the gym or in your home.

Myth: For best results, you should feel sore after a workout.

Fact: A well-designed strength-training program can help you avoid post-workout muscle aches.

Myth: Strength training is boring.

Fact: Strength training adds variety to your workout program so you don't get bored. Your muscles will thank you, too—they will like the variety of being asked to move and stretch in different ways.

The benefits of strength training are numerous, for people with diabetes and for those without in all age groups. Generally speaking, resistance-type exercises increase muscle mass. Muscle is an active tissue, which burns calories and thus helps increase your metabolism. The key to a healthy weight is to increase muscle mass and decrease fat mass. The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism is at rest. This means you burn fat while resting. That's a good deal.

More muscle mass also helps prevent age-related declines, such as weakness and muscle atrophy (muscle that literally wastes away). Walking up stairs, carrying heavy objects, and getting up off the floor will all be easier when you increase your muscle mass.

Resistance exercise also works to lower blood glucose levels and makes you more sensitive to insulin. This means you transport glucose from your bloodstream to your muscles in a more efficient manner and that you need less insulin to do so. In fact, moving your muscles acts like a pump, pushing glucose into muscle where it can be used as fuel instead of circulating in high levels in your blood. Even better, strength training is free; there's no co-pay involved.

The American Diabetes Association supports the guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine, recommending resistance training at least twice a week for adults with diabetes. A well-designed session includes at least five exercises that work your major muscle groups, each move performed for 10 to 15 repetitions, until you're almost fatigued. There may be further health benefits if you increase the intensity or do additional sets (you can do that by repeating the exercise for another 10 to 15 repetitions after a short break or recovery period).

Before you start, speak to your doctor if you have any diabetes-related complications or other health concerns.

illustration of woman doing squat exercise

Squat: Strengthens hips, buttocks, thighs, and abdomen
Stand facing a sink or countertop with your feet about shoulder width apart and pointing forward. To keep your knees aligned, hold a small, lightweight ball between your knees as you squat. B Lean back slightly, gripping the sink or countertop edge for balance. C Keeping your back straight, squat as if you were sitting down on a chair, feeling the stretch in your buttocks and thighs. D At the lowest point of the squat, your seat and thighs should be in a straight line, parallel to the floor. E Slowly and smoothly return to a standing position.
Repetitions: 10–15 Sets: 1–2
Illustration by David Preiss

illustration of woman doing back leg lift exercise

Back Leg Lift: Strengthens hips, thighs, and calves
A Standing in front of a countertop, put both hands on the counter for support. Slightly bend your left leg so you don’t hyperextend your knee. Tuck your pelvis toward the counter. Slowly lift and lower your right leg behind you. B Switch legs and repeat.
Repetitions: 10–15 Sets: 1–2 with each leg
Illustration by David Preiss

illustration of woman doing side leg raise

Side Leg Raise: Strengthens inner and outer thighs
A Stand facing a sturdy chair or countertop with a slight bend in your right leg so you don’t hyperextend the knee. Tuck your pelvis toward the chair. B Lift the left leg to your side until you feel a slight stretch and hold for 30 seconds to improve balance. C Return leg to starting position and do side leg lifts for 10 to 15 repetitions. D Switch legs and repeat.
Repetitions: 10–15 Sets: 1–2 with each leg
Illustration by David Preiss

illustration of woman doing lunge exercise

Lunge: Strengthens hips, buttocks, thighs, and abdomen
A You’ll need a step or staircase for this move. Holding on to the wall or stair railing and leaning forward slightly, place one foot on the first or second step with the other leg behind you. B Keep your raised knee aligned over your toes. C Slowly bend your back leg at the knee, lowering and then raising your body to complete one lunge. D Switch legs and repeat. E If desired, switch legs again and do another set on each leg.
Repetitions: 10–15 Sets: 1–2 with each leg
Illustration by David Preiss

illustration of woman doing plank pose exercise on stairs

Plank Pose: Strengthens abdomen (your core)
A You’ll need a stairway or a kitchen counter to achieve this pose, which starts in push-up position, with your hands on about the fifth step (using a lower step will intensify the exercise). B Continue to elevate your body at an angle, scooping in your abdominal muscles and tilting your pelvis toward the stairs to elongate your spine. Think about zipping up your abdominals underneath your ribcage. C Hold for 30 to 90 seconds. D To challenge yourself, lift one leg off the ground and hold the plank pose for another set. E For a further challenge, lift one leg up and to the side, and hold.
Hold: 30–90 seconds Sets: 3–5
Illustration by David Preiss

illustration of woman doing standing push-ups against wall

Standing Push-Ups: Strengthens chest and arms
A Stand facing a wall or counter. B Place your hands on the wall, about shoulder width apart, with your arms extended. Tuck your pelvis toward the wall. C Slowly bend your elbows to bring your chest close to the wall, then push back. Keep your spine straight.
Repetitions: 10–15 Sets: 1–2
Illustration by David Preiss

illustration of woman doing reverse fly exercise in chair

Reverse Fly: Strengthens back, shoulders, and upper arms
A Sit on a chair with your feet shoulder width apart. B Lean over your legs, resting your stomach on your thighs. C Hold weights, water bottles, or soup cans in your hands, with your arms pointing down and your thumbs pointing to the sides. D Lift your straight arms out to the sides, leading with your thumbs and squeezing your shoulders together; don’t squeeze your neck.
Repetitions: 10–15 Sets: 1–2
Illustration by David Preiss

illustration of woman doing front raise exercise with dumbbell on chair

Front Raise: Strengthens your back, shoulders, and upper arms
A In a seated position, hold weights, water bottles, or soup cans in your hands. B Lift both arms to the front at shoulder height, leading with your thumbs.
Repetitions: 10–15 Sets: 1–2
Illustration by David Preiss


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