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What is resistance training and why should you care?

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BY CHRISTEL OERUM (DIABETES STRONG)

I absolutely love resistance training! I love how empowered it makes me feel and how it helps me manage my diabetes.

Resistance training simply means that you put your muscles to work, building strength by using your bodyweight, resistance bands or weights. The beauty of all of these options is that resistance training doesn’t have to happen in a gym and you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment.

I find it so empowering because I love seeing myself get physically stronger week by week, and it is immensely satisfying to be able to do one more squat than last week or lift a heavier dumbbell. Progress is always motivating!

If you need more convincing that resistance training is a great thing, it can also improve your metabolism, burn stored fat and glucose, and improve your insulin sensitivity (how well your body uses insulin) regardless of if you inject insulin or produce it yourself1.

Christel Oerum of Diabetes Strong doing single-leg deadlifts

What to know about resistance training if you live with diabetes

If you are used to walking or other types of aerobic exercise (activities where your heart rate stays elevated), you are probably used to exercise making your blood sugar drop. Resistance training is a little different, and you might find that your blood sugar stays the same or even increases temporarily. So, what gives?!?

When you do resistance training, you put your muscles under tension for a short amount of time before taking a break and then repeating (e.g. do 10 squats, rest for 30 seconds, and then 10 more squats). That means that your heart rate will fluctuate throughout your workout.

This type of exercise and heart rate response (called anaerobic exercise) typically has little impact on blood sugar or can even make it go up while you exercise2. The good thing is that blood sugar usually comes down after exercise and you might see a significantly improved insulin sensitivity for up to 24 hours after you have worked out.

To manage my blood sugars during resistance training, I often have to adjust my insulin before and after the workout to reduce the risk of my blood sugars going high or low.

Of course, we are all different, so you might find that you don’t need to make any changes or that you need to make significant changes to your medication. A good place to start is to discuss strategies with your medical team and take it from there.

If you do not inject insulin, you obviously cannot adjust it. However, please know that because resistance training will improve your insulin sensitivity, it is tremendously useful for people living with any type of diabetes, even if you see a small blood sugar increase during your workout.1

Fueling my workouts and using the right levers to limit high or low blood sugars

I hope that you find resistance training to be as enjoyable as I do. Some people see improved strength in as little as two weeks so it is definitely an activity that gives quick returns.

But success at resistance training comes down to more than just using your muscles, you also need your nutrition to support your goals.

This doesn’t have to be a boring meal. It is a great opportunity to make yummy snacks like protein pancakes, heat up a chicken casserole, enjoy leftovers from last night’s dinner or grab your favorite yogurt and an apple.

I include protein before and after a resistance training workout because muscle fibers are broken down during the workout, and muscles need protein to heal and grow back stronger3. The carbohydrates give you the energy to complete your workout, and I’ve found that it can help manage the potential blood sugar increase you may see from resistance training.

It is generally recommended that you measure your blood sugar before and sometime during exercise, especially if you treat your diabetes with insulin. That is the only way you will truly understand how your body reacts to different types of exercise and how you will learn to adjust your diabetes management.

My favorite resistance training exercises

You might be reading this post thinking, “This is all great, Christel, but what exercises should I be doing?”

This is an excellent question, and although the exact exercises will depend on what equipment (if any) you have available, there are some exercises that I highly recommend in any resistance training workout.

I always recommend what I call the “large” exercises, where you use many different muscles groups to do the exercise. By working several muscle groups at once, you maximize your time spent.

My top 3 “large” exercises are:

  1. Squat variations – Squat down until your knees are at a 90-degree angle (or less if you are very flexible) and stand up again. You can also simply sit down on a low chair and stand up again if freestanding squats are too difficult.
  2. Push variations – Push-ups on the floor or against a wall (easier)
  3. Pull variations – Any exercise where you work your back muscles by pulling something towards you.  

Don’t worry if you don’t know how to perform these exercises. I have a whole library of resistance training workouts for both at home and in the gym on Diabetes Strong where I demonstrate multiple variations of each exercise.

Anytime you start something new, you should always go slowly. You need to push yourself a little to get stronger, but going from 0% to 100% overnight will only end in injuries. Do your research and learn how to perform the exercises, or have a trainer at your gym walk you through them. Most gyms will give you an intro workout with a trainer for free or at a large discount.

Resistance training is no longer only for big grunting bodybuilders. People of all ages are falling in love with resistance training and the benefits it brings - especially for us living with diabetes.

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1Eves, Neil D., and Ronald C. Plotnikoff. “RESISTANCE TRAINING FOR THE MANAGEMENT OF TYPE 2 DIABETES.” American Diabetes Association, American Diabetes Association, 27 Apr. 2006, care.diabetesjournals.org/content/29/8/1933. Accessed April 4, 2019.

2Lukács, Andrea, and László Barkai. “Effect of Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercises on Glycemic Control in Type 1 Diabetic Youths.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, NCBI, 15 Apr. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4398909/. Accessed April 4, 2019.

3Phillips, Stuart M, and Luc JC Van Loon. “Dietary Protein for Athletes: from Requirements to Optimum Adaptation.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, NCBI, 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22150425. Accessed April 4, 2019.

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