By Sheri R. Colberg, PhD
If you suffer from diabetes, you already know that staying fit greatly benefits your health. Yet, many of the complications caused by diabetes can make it difficult to get the exercise you need; in fact, they can make a normal exercise routine difficult or even dangerous. For example, peripheral neuropathy (numbness in the feet caused by nerve damage) may affect your balance and put you at risk for a fall, or could lead to slow-healing ulcers that keep you inactive. On top of that, diabetes patients may have heart disease symptoms or vision problems that make getting up and going for a walk more risky than helpful.
The good news is that these complications don’t have to prevent you from doing safe and healthy exercise. You can still get a beneficial workout—minus the risks—by exercising your core. Even though a lot of people with diabetes think having neuropathy or other complications means they have to be a couch potato, that’s just not true. Just because you can’t get outside for a brisk walk or run doesn’t mean you can’t get fit. Exercising your core is a safe way to improve your strength and stability so you can better handle your daily life—right from your own home.
Core exercises are an important part of a well-rounded fitness program for diabetes patients. Your body core, including the muscles around your trunk, is particularly important to keep strong so you can go about your normal daily activity and prevent falls and injuries, especially as you age. The best part? They are easy to do on your own in your home, and you don’t even need to purchase any equipment to perform them. However, once you become more advanced, you can accelerate your workouts using a gym ball or dumbbells.
Ready to get a strong core and improve your stability and overall wellness? Here are ten core exercises that I recommend highly for people with diabetes (or anyone for that matter).
Look for illustrated versions of these core exercises in Chapter 21 (“Ten Easy Exercises to Build a Strong Core without Leaving the House”) in Diabetes & Keeping Fit for Dummies by Dr. Sheri Colberg available online at Amazon.com or Dummies.com.
1. Abdominal Squeezes. This exercise is great for working your abdominals and getting your core as strong as possible. If you’re female and have gone through a pregnancy, getting these muscles in shape doing these squeezes is a must.
- Put one of your hands against your upper stomach and the other facing the other direction below your belly button.
- Inhale to expand your stomach.
- Exhale and try to pull your abdominal muscles halfway toward your spine. This is your starting position.
- Contract your abdominal muscles more deeply in toward your spine while counting to two.
- Return to the starting position from Step 3 for another count of two.
Work up to doing 100 repetitions per workout session.
2. Plank or Modified Plank. Nobody likes doing planks, but they get the job done when it comes to boosting the strength of your core. Both planks and modified planks work multiple areas, including your abdominals, lower back, and shoulders.
- Start on the floor on your stomach and bend your elbows 90 degrees, resting your weight on your forearms.
- Place your elbows directly beneath your shoulders and form a straight line from your head to your feet.
- Hold this position as long as you can.
Repeat this exercise as many times as possible during each workout.
3. Side Planks. A modification of regular planks, this side plank exercise works some of the same and some slightly different muscles that include your abdominals, oblique abdominal muscles, sides of hips, gluteals, and shoulders. Try doing some of both types for the best results.
- Start out on the floor on your side with your feet together and one forearm directly below your shoulder.
- Contract your core muscles and raise your hips until your body is in a straight line from head to feet.
- Hold this position without letting your hips drop for as long as you can.
- Repeat Steps 1 through 3 on the other side.
Switch back and forth between sides as many times as you can.
4. Bridging. If you work on your abdominal strength, you also need to build the strength in your lower back to keep things balanced. Bridging is a good exercise to do that as it works your buttocks (including gluteals), low back, and hip extensors. Remember to breathe in and out throughout this exercise.
- Keeping your shoulders on the floor, slowly raise your buttocks from the floor with your stomach tight and your lower back straight.
- Gently lower your back to the ground.
- Repeat Steps 1 and 2.
5. Pelvic Tilt. An easy exercise to do, the pelvic tilt works your lower back and lower part of your abdominals.
- Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hands either by your sides or supporting your head.
- Tighten your bottom, forcing your lower back flat against the floor, and then relax.
- Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as many times as you can.
6. Superhero Pose. Whether you want to leap tall building with a single bound or not, try doing this superhero pose exercise to get a stronger core. It works many areas, including your lower back, upper back, back of shoulders, and gluteals.
- Lie on your stomach with your arms straight out in front of your head on the floor.
- Rest your chin on the floor between your arms.
- Keeping your arms and legs straight, simultaneously lift your feet and your hands as high off the floor as you can. Aim for at least three inches.
- Hold that position (sort of a superhero flying position) for 10 seconds if possible, and then relax your arms and legs back onto the floor.
7. Knee Push-Ups. Push-ups are hard to do if you haven’t built up the strength in your shoulders yet, so this knee version is an easier way to start for most people. This exercise works your chest, front of shoulders, and back of upper arms.
- Get on your hands and knees on the floor or a mat.
- Place your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles to straighten your lower back and lower yourself down toward the floor as far as you can without touching.
- Push yourself back up until your arms are extended, but don’t lock your elbows.
8. Suitcase Lift. This exercise is the proper way to lift items from the floor. Before you begin, place dumbbells or household items slightly forward and between your feet on the floor. You work the same muscles used in doing squats (lower back and lower body) with this activity.
- Stand in an upright position with your back and arms straight, with your hands in front of your abdomen.
- Bending only your knees, reach down to pick up the dumbbells.
- Grab the dumbbells or items in both hands and then push up with your legs and stand upright, keeping your back straight.
9. Squats with Knee Squeezes. These squats are not your normal squats. They’re more like a combination of squatting and wall sitting with a twist. You work the front and back of the thighs, inner thighs (adductors), hip flexors, and extensors all with this one exercise.
- Stand with your back against the wall, with your feet aligned with your knees and straight out in front of you.
- Place a ball or pillow between your knees and hold it there with your legs.
- Inhale to expand your stomach and then exhale and contract your abdominal muscles.
- Bend your knees and lower yourself into a squat. To avoid injuring your knees, don’t bend them more than 90 degrees.
- Squeeze the ball with your thighs, drawing your stomach muscles more deeply toward your spine.
- Do as many squeezes as you can up to 20 and then return to the starting position.
10. Lunges. Lunges are a common activity to work on the front and back of thighs, hip flexors and extensors, abdominals and lower back all with one exercise. Do them with proper form to avoid aggravating your knees, though.
- Keep your upper body straight, with your shoulders back and relaxed and chin up.
- Pick a point to stare at in front of you so you don’t keep looking down, and engage your core.
- Step forward with one leg, lowering your hips until both knees are bent at about a 90-degree angle. Make sure your front knee is directly above your ankle, not pushed out too far, and don’t let your back knee touch the floor.
- Focus on keeping your weight on your heels as you push back up to the starting position.
Even though diabetes sometimes presents tough fitness challenges, you can use these core-strengthening exercises to maintain fitness in spite of any mobility issues you’re facing right now. Whether you still active or sedentary, working your core is a safe and smart way to improve your balance, keep you as fit as possible, and elevate your overall quality of life.
Sheri R. Colberg, PhD, is the author of Diabetes & Keeping Fit For Dummies. She is Professor Emerita of Exercise Science from Old Dominion University and an internationally recognized diabetes motion expert. She is the author of 12 books, 25 book chapters, and over 300 articles. She was honored with the 2016 American Diabetes Association Outstanding Educator in Diabetes Award. Contact her via her websites (SheriColberg.com and DiabetesMotion.com).