Making the Most of a Walking Workout
Getting in shape can be as easy as slipping on your sneakers and going for a brisk walk
Safety Note: Check with your health care provider before starting or changing your exercise plan.
Looking for a workout routine that’ll help you lose weight, lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of cancer, boost your mood, strengthen your bones, and reduce insulin resistance? You don’t have to sign up for some mega-intense sweat session to check off all those boxes. Just lace up your sneakers and go for a brisk walk. “Walking is one of the safest yet most effective modes of exercise,” says Richard Peng, MS, MBA, RCEP, CDE, a clinical exercise physiologist and certified diabetes educator at HealthCare Partners medical group in Los Angeles. It’s also a potent weapon when it comes to beating back type 2 diabetes and managing all types of diabetes.
It’s never too late to reap the benefits of walking, whether you have just been diagnosed with diabetes or have lived with it for years.
Why Walking Works
When you do moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, your muscles use glucose to fuel your workout. “This helps bring down your blood glucose levels, an effect that lasts for hours after your activity,” says Peng. It also makes your muscles more sensitive to insulin. As a result, most people with diabetes who embark on a walking program see improvements in blood glucose.
But there are other ways walking helps improve your diabetes: It blasts fat, particularly the dangerous visceral fat that accumulates deep inside your abdomen and has been linked to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, says Gary Scheiner, MS, CDE, clinical director of Integrated Diabetes Services. It can also alleviate symptoms of depression: Middle-aged women with depression who walked for about 200 minutes a week reported more energy and better moods than those who were more sedentary, according to a study published in 2015 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Walking may also reduce your risk of developing diabetes-related complications, such as nerve damage (neuropathy). According to a study published in the Journal of Diabetes and Its Complications, people with type 2 diabetes who spent at least four hours a week walking were much less likely to develop neuropathy than those who didn’t exercise. “It’s the ultimate medication for diabetes—and you can access it without even taking a pill,” says Scheiner.
The best part: You don’t have to walk the equivalent of a marathon—or even a half marathon—to see results. Research shows that moderate-intensity exercise may be better than vigorous activity when it comes to managing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. A 2016 study published in the medical journal Diabetologia, for example, found that when people with prediabetes performed moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking briskly for 11.5 miles each week, their body’s ability to process glucose improved by 7 percent after six months, compared with an only 2 percent improvement in those who ran the same distance. “It may be that very intense exercise causes the body to make more stress hormones, increasing blood sugar, or simply that it makes you hungrier, so you end up eating more and thus raising your blood sugar,” says Peng.
Your Exercise Rx
The American Diabetes Association recommends that all adults with diabetes engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity (such as brisk walking) each week. “You should spread it over at least three days a week, with no more than 48 hours without activity, since the effects of exercise on insulin sensitivity last for only a day or two,” says Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD, an exercise physiologist and professor emerita of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
If you’ve been sedentary, start slow. “It’s very important to start off with manageable chunks so that you don’t injure yourself,” says Scheiner. This is particularly true if you have another condition related to your diabetes, such as neuropathy. But don’t skip exercise altogether. Research shows that aerobic exercise such as walking three or four days a week, along with strength training (such as lifting weights), can significantly reduce pain and neuropathic symptoms.
Begin with five minutes of walking a day. Each week, add another five minutes until you’re walking somewhere in the range of 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week. If you have neuropathy or other conditions that put you at risk for falls, consider walking on a treadmill so you can hold on to the handlebars, or use a walking stick when you’re outdoors.
If you’re already a seasoned walker, you can bring your workout up a notch by throwing in some interval training, says Scheiner. This can be as simple as adding a few hills to your walk (if you’re on a treadmill) or speeding up the pace at various points. If you normally hoof it at a 4-mile-an-hour pace, for instance, increase your speed every 10 minutes so that you’re walking at 5 miles an hour for three to five minutes.
Be mindful of your blood glucose, especially if you take insulin or sulfonylureas, which can cause low blood glucose (hypoglycemia). To be safe, check your level before your walk. “You’ll want it to be above or around 120,” says Peng. Heading out for more than 30 minutes? Plan to check your blood glucose along the way and carry glucose tablets or another fast-acting carb in case your blood glucose goes too low. After your walk, check your blood glucose again.
Ask the Expert
Q: What’s the best time of day to walk?
A: Whenever you can fit it in, says Gary Scheiner, MS, CDE, clinical director of Integrated Diabetes Services. Research suggests, however, that a short stroll after eating may help lower post-meal blood glucose levels more than exercising at other times of the day. One study found that people with type 2 diabetes who took a 10-minute walk after a meal had 12 percent lower blood glucose than those who took a 30-minute walk at another time.
Step By Step
Everyone, regardless of fitness level, benefits if they walk with proper form. “Stand straight with your shoulders rolled back, swinging your arms freely with a slight bend in your elbows,” says Lee Jordan, BS, ACE-CPT, CHC, OES, a health coach and personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise. Focus on walking smoothly, rolling your foot from heel to toe (see illustration above). This will help you avoid strains or other injuries. If you want to speed up, don’t lengthen your stride, which can cause stress on joints. Instead, simply take shorter steps at a faster pace. And remember to smile! “You should feel invigorated and happy when you’re walking,” says Jordan. “If you do, you’re more likely to keep doing it.”
Starting a walking routine is easier than sticking with it. Here are three tips to keep you in the game.
- Track your progress. “Just seeing how many miles you’ve walked, whether it’s in a single workout or over the course of a day, can be very motivating,” says Gary Scheiner, MS, CDE, clinical director of Integrated Diabetes Services. One review of pedometer studies, for example, found that people who used a pedometer to meet a fitness goal were more likely to increase their physical activity, lose weight, and improve blood pressure.
- Monitor your blood glucose. Comparing your pre-workout glucose reading to your level after exercise can be a great motivator. “My clients tell me that when they check their blood sugar before walking and it’s 180, and then right after it’s down to 120, it inspires them to keep exercising,” says Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD, an exercise physiologist and professor emerita of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
- Find a walking pal. People who seek out a workout companion end up exercising more than those who go solo, according to a study published in 2016 in the British Journal of Health Psychology.
Before you lace up your walking shoes, make sure you’re wearing the right ones. “If you have diabetes, the wrong choice in walking shoes means more than just an uncomfortable blister—it can lead to ugly ulcers and infections that leave you on the sidelines for weeks,” says Richard Peng, MS, MBA, RCEP, CDE, a clinical exercise physiologist and diabetes educator at HealthCare Partners medical group in Los Angeles. After each walk, check your feet for sores and blisters. If you see any, stop workouts until they’ve healed. (If a sore doesn’t seem to be healing after a day or two, call your doctor.) When shopping for shoes, look for:
- A roomy toe box. You should be able to fit your entire thumb between the end of your toe and the end of the shoe.
- Flexible material. Feet can swell during the day and during exercise, especially if you have kidney disease. Look for a shoe that’s made of material such as neoprene, which can expand to your feet. A Velcro fastener can also make it easier to adjust.
- Plenty of padding. Look for padding along the tongue of the shoe and the rear to help reduce friction that can lead to blisters.
- Mesh around the toe box. It allows better ventilation, making it less likely that your feet will sweat, which in turn can lead to irritation that turns into an open sore.