By Sheri Colberg, Ph.D.
In addition to aerobic activities, you can greatly improve your blood glucose by doing some resistance, or weight, training. Like so many systems in the body, if you don’t use all your muscle fibers, you lose them over time. Anyone past the age of 25 is slowly losing muscle mass, which decreases how many carbs you can store in your muscles as glycogen. You need to retain as much of your muscle mass as possible—and gain more muscle if you can.
If you’re older or have physical limitations, working on your muscular strength helps prevent loss of muscle mass and bone density. The goal of resistance training is increased muscular fitness, both strength and endurance. Regardless of what you type you choose, engaging in any resistance training is always better than doing none.
What should you do if you’re just starting out? Choose among using resistance bands, free weights, resistance machines, or body weight as resistance (for example, doing planks or lunges). The main difference is the intensity of training. For each workout, try to do at least eight to 10 different resistance exercises (at least six to start) that work your full musculature (upper body, lower body, and core). If nothing else, start with strength training exercises that use your own body weight as resistance (like planks, lunges, or wall or modified knee push-ups). Resistance bands, dumbbells, and household items used as resistance (e.g., full water bottles and soup cans) also all work to do these exercises at home on your own. Most training can be done seated for those with mobility and balance issues.
How often should you train? You should ideally perform resistance training at least 2 nonconsecutive days each week, preferably 3. Working the same muscle groups daily doesn’t allow adequate time for recovery and muscle repair between workouts, but if you want to resistance train more than 3 days per week, you can alternate muscle groups when you train on consecutive days. Doing it as infrequently as one day a week can still be beneficial for muscle mass and insulin action.
How hard should it feel? You can gain or maintain strength by doing anywhere from 3 to 15 repetitions per set on each exercise and 1 to 3 sets, with rest between multiple sets. Generally, working up to doing 8 to 12 repetitions and two to three sets is recommended, although you can get stronger from just doing a single set. Start with an easier weight and more reps, and gradually work up to more resistance and fewer reps. If you have joint limitations or other health complications, complete 1 set of exercises for all major muscle groups, starting with 10 to 15 repetitions and progressing to 15 to 20 repetitions before adding extra sets. Your muscles should be working hard during the last 3 to 4 reps in each set, regardless. If it feels too easy, try a heavier resistance or weight; if you can’t complete your goal number of repetitions, try using a lighter amount.
What else do you need to do? Make sure to warm up your muscles and joints before starting resistance training. The best way to warm up if not also doing an aerobic workout is to go through the same motions that you used for the workout, but without any resistance. Take time to have them stretch any muscles that feel tight during workouts, since that will help with increasing both flexibility and strength.
How can I avoid getting injured? To avoid injury or work around your existing joint limitations, progress slowly toward working out harder or more frequently. It’s generally better to increase your weight or resistance first—only if the number of reps you’re doing is way too easy—and only then increase your number of sets and lastly add in additional training days. Expect that is should take you six months or more to progress up to doing 3 days per week (and only if you want to) and doing up to 3 set of 8 to 10 reps each—an optimal goal for most adults with diabetes.
Resistance Training Goals, Recommendations, and Precautions:
- Short-term goal: 1 to 2 times per week, 6 to 8 exercises to start
- Long-term goal: 3 days per week, 10 to 12 exercises
- 2 to 3 sets per exercise
- 10 to 15 reps per exercise to start; 8 to 12 reps per exercise later on
- Start slowly with training and build up
- Don’t resistance train the same muscle groups more often than every other day
- Gradually increase resistance or weights over time
- Perform exercises with slow controlled movements
- Extend limbs and use the full range of motion around each joint being worked
- Breathe out during exertion, and always avoid breath holding
- Stop exercise if dizziness, unusual shortness of breath, chest discomfort, palpitations, or joint pain occurs
In addition to my educational web site, Diabetes Motion (www.diabetesmotion.com), I also recently founded an academy for fitness and other professionals seeking continuing education enabling them to effectively work with people with diabetes and exercise: Diabetes Motion Academy, accessible at www.dmacademy.com. Please visit those sites and my personal one (www.shericolberg.com) for more useful information about being active with diabetes.