Demystifying Diabetes

For many, diabetes may seem like an unfamiliar affliction that someone who knows someone you know suffers from, but an estimated seven percent of Canada’s population lives with this disease, from children to older adults, and that percentage shows no signs of slowing down. Diabetes is a condition that affects the body’s ability to produce or use insulin, a hormone that signals the body to take glucose from the blood to use as energy — and it can, unfortunately, lead to a host of other health issues of varying severity.

Breaking it Down

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune response in which the body, specifically the pancreas, produces little to no insulin. This is dangerous because insulin helps regulate blood sugar levels, and high blood sugar (called hyperglycemia) can damage bodily tissues including organs, blood vessels, and nerves. Type 1 diabetes affects approximately five to 10 percent of diabetics — usually adolescents, but it can also develop in adulthood. Ensuring a balanced meal is always nearby is one way that type 1 diabetics keep their blood sugar levels within a healthy range. When a person’s body isn’t making enough insulin or doesn’t utilize it properly, on the other hand, type 2 diabetes can occur. While usually found in adults, the sad reality is that more and more children are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, with the number of young sufferers rising steadily over the past 20 years. Some patients’ diabetes must be managed with medication and insulin, while for others a special, timed diet paired with exercise will work to control the condition. But that’s not where the healthy lifestyle link ends: John Hopkins University School of Medicine reported that those with prediabetes (the condition in which diabetes warning signs like increased thirst and lethargy come to call) who reduce their body weight by as little as five to seven percent significantly reduced their risk of developing full-blown type 2 diabetes.

Risk Factors

Across the globe, type 2 diabetes affects people from many different backgrounds and ethnicities, though there are some populations that are more likely to develop it and are therefore considered high-risk, such as African, Asian, Aboriginal, and Hispanic peoples; you also may be at risk if an immediate family member has the disease. Other symptoms and characteristics that would indicate you may need to be tested are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and excess weight around your middle.

Complications of Diabetes

Diabetes-related complications can be very serious and sometimes even life-threatening — think chronic kidney disease; retinopathy or eye damage; nerve damage, especially in the feet; cardiovascular disease; and even mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. The good news is that managing blood sugar levels can significantly reduce a diabetic’s risk of developing these complications. But it’s not just blood sugar that diabetics have to worry about. The likelihood you will die from heart disease is two to four times greater if you have diabetes, due to a reduced cardiovascular capacity. In fact, the cardiovascular age of a person with diabetes is up to 15 years higher than their chronological age.

Keeping Ahead of the CurveKeeping Ahead of the Curve

As a certified diabetes educator, pharmacist, personal trainer, and fitness competitor, counseling my patients about the benefits of diet and exercise is extremely important to me. Chances are that a family member, friend, or someone else you know has been affected by diabetes, and recommending healthy eating and exercise, especially resistance training, are the best prescriptions one can give. Encouraging and motivating individuals to move more and make healthy food selections are crucial steps to improving their quality of life. Furthermore, these choices are major factors in both preventing the onset of this disease and effectively managing it with age. You already know that regular physical activity helps lower blood glucose levels, promotes weight loss, reduces stress, and enhances overall fitness. Whether you are just starting out or are looking for something new, it’s always a good idea to implement a structured exercise program with the supervision of a qualified trainer — he or she can teach you techniques to increase results and prevent injury. If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, be sure to get approval from your physician before starting any new exercise regimen. I encourage my clients to get moving with whatever form of exercise works for them, but resistance training is particularly beneficial for diabetics of all ages. And that doesn’t necessarily mean buying a gym membership — you can start at home with basic body-weight exercises, small weights, and bands. My father is in his seventies and happens to be a diabetic. Since he began resistance training at home twice a week, he has seen fantastic results in the form of lower blood sugar levels. What you do, movement-wise can be very simple, but the rewards are huge!


Know about DiabetesNutrition

What, when, and how much you eat play important roles in regulating blood glucose levels. Nutritional therapy and counselling can make a huge impact on this disease as far as consistency of carbohydrate intake, replacing high-glycemic index carbohydrates with low-glycemic index choices, and proper distribution of macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs) based on individual needs. I spend a lot of time looking at food journals and helping patients choose the most nutritious foods that spur a minimal insulin response to avoid further weight gain and high blood sugars. The foods I eat while prepping for competitions are very much in line with a diabetic diet, so this has helped immensely as I counsel my patients.

Nutrition couseling for diabetic patients Medical Intervention

The main goal of diabetes management is to maintain blood glucose levels within the normal range as much as possible. Weight control via diet and exercise can help in this, but medications may be needed in order to keep glucose levels in a healthy range. There are several types of diabetes medications that are taken orally (like metformin), but if blood glucose cannot be controlled by these measures, insulin injections may, unfortunately, be necessary.


Exercise for Diabetes


Diabetes education is the most important factor in managing this disease. All diabetics need to be informed about their condition to help in daily self-management; patients can visit the Diabetes Canada website, find a Diabetes Education Centre in their area, or attend groups and classes that offer support. Health professionals other than your physician can also be vast sources of information and may include pharmacists, nurses, dietitians, chiropodists, physiotherapists, psychiatrists, and even exercise coaches and specialists. Teaching others about diabetes is my passion and was one of the reasons I pursued a career in fitness training and nutrition in the first place. I count myself among those who possess many risk factors of the disease (carrying 10-pound baby boys, a family history of diabetes, being over 50, and hypertension during pregnancy) which makes me recognize, perhaps better than many, that prevention is the key.


Diabetes is a growing concern in our society — it’s important for everyone to do their part by spreading the word about the power exercise and healthy nutrition holds in staving off this potentially fatal affliction.

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By : Sandra Cox

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