How to Start a Resistance-Training Routine
Safety Note: Check with your health care provider before starting or changing your exercise plan.
You might work up a sweat with regular bike rides and knock out thousands of steps a day, but there may be one piece of the exercise puzzle you’re missing: resistance training. If you have diabetes, that’s an essential part of any fitness plan.
“We know that people with diabetes are at risk for lower muscle strength,” says Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD, FACSM, professor emerita of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. One study published in 2016 in the journal Diabetes Care found that participants with type 2 diabetes had more fat in their leg muscles than those who didn’t have diabetes, a possible cause of muscle weakness.
Doing resistance exercises (using free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, or your own body weight) will do more than boost muscle strength. Research shows it will also lower your A1C, improve insulin sensitivity, and help reduce the risk of diseases that people with diabetes are more susceptible to, such as heart disease, osteoporosis, and depression. No wonder the American Diabetes Association’s 2018 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes recommends two to three strength-training sessions per week.
What to Know
If you’ve never lifted weights before, resistance training can seem downright daunting. “People are afraid of getting hurt, especially if they have another coexisting disease along with their diabetes, such as high blood pressure or retinopathy,” says Karen Kemmis, PT, CDE, a physical therapist and certified diabetes educator at the Joslin Diabetes Center at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. The key? “Make sure you don’t start out too aggressively and that you’re doing the exercises correctly.
Otherwise, you run the risk of injury.” Many health clubs and community centers offer beginner-level classes, which can ease you into a strength-training routine. Whether you take a class or go it alone, keep these tips in mind
Stretch it out.
Stretch for five minutes before and after your workout. Less-flexible muscles make you more likely to develop overuse injuries such as frozen shoulder or carpal tunnel syndrome. (Go here for some easy-to-do stretches.)
When you’re new to resistance training, either lift your own body weight—with moves such as lunges and push-ups done on bent knees—or use light hand weights, resistance bands, or even simple household items, such as water bottles and soup cans. Once you’ve gotten to the point where you can do eight to 12 reps without muscle fatigue, move to a heavier weight. “Your body stores glucose in your muscles, and the heavier the weight, the more glucose you use,” says Colberg-Ochs. Heavy weights are also better at building up muscle mass, which in turn helps your body store glucose.
Stick with it.
Do some type of strength training at least twice a week. “You don’t want to do resistance training on the same muscles two days in a row because that doesn’t give them enough time to rest,” says Robert Powell, PhD, CDE, director of the Diabetes Exercise Center at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. That rest is essential—it’s when your body repairs muscle tissue, which is how you get stronger. If you want to do resistance training on two consecutive days, focus on upper body one day and lower body the next.
Keep it balanced.
If you work the muscles on one side of a joint, work the ones on the other side as well (for example, biceps and triceps in your upper arms, or quadriceps and hamstrings in your thighs), says Powell. Doing so will help you reduce your chances of developing muscle imbalances that can make you more susceptible to injury.
Watch your blood glucose.
Do a blood glucose check right after you finish exercising and again 30 minutes later. Unlike aerobic exercise, resistance training can cause your blood glucose to rise right after your workout. Because it’s anaerobic—exercise that requires a quick burst of power at a high intensity—strength training “increases stress hormones, such as adrenaline, for a short period of time, which tends to drive blood glucose levels up,” says Powell. Don’t take extra insulin at that point. “Wait a half hour to see if your muscles take that sugar back in.” If they don’t, he says, then it’s time to inject insulin.