How Health Clubs Can Help Members with All Types of Diabetes

Regular exercise benefits people with Type 2 diabetes, but it can also help people with other forms of diabetes maintain good health.

Every November during National Diabetes Month, discourse focuses on all the ways that physical activity and a healthy diet can help people with diabetes manage blood glucose.

This advice is great, but when we talk about diabetes we tend to automatically think of Type 2 diabetes. And while exercise can help treat and prevent Type 2 diabetes, it’s important to remember physical activity can also benefit people with other types of diabetes that can get less attention.

Type 1 diabetes, in which the body’s immune system attacks insulin producing cells, accounts for 10% of diabetes cases—that's 1.25 million people—in the U.S. And gestational diabetes, in which insulin resistance affects expectant mothers, affects up to 10% of U.S. pregnancies every year.

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Type 1 Diabetes and Physical Activity

For people with Type 1 diabetes, exercise provides the same mental and physical health benefits it provides to people without diabetes. Regular physical activity can:

Studies show physical activity improves self-confidence and academic performance in kids, and that’s no different for kids with Type 1. In addition, a 2014 review indicated that exercise might help reduce hemoglobin A1C (a long-term measurement of glucose levels) in Type 1 diabetic adults, while another study showed exercise—especially higher intensity exercise—may impact the development of neuropathy (kidney disease). A 2015 review also found an inverse association between physical activity and hemoglobin A1C, diabetic ketoacidosis (a result of very high blood sugars), BMI, lipid values, and retinopathy.

Yet like their non-diabetic peers, people with Type 1 diabetes may not be getting enough exercise. Only 28% of Americans meet the Physical Activity Guidelines, and diabetes can add a level of difficulty to pursuing an active lifestyle. A 2008 study found that fear of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) was the most common barrier to exercise, while participants in a 2014 survey reported lack of knowledge about managing diabetes and its complications around exercise as a barrier to getting active. Those participants also reported lack of time, workload, access to facilities, and body image as barriers to an active lifestyle—the same barriers which are also common among people without Type 1 diabetes.

“Studies show physical activity improves self-confidence and academic performance in kids, and that’s no different for kids with Type 1.”

Gestational Diabetes and Exercise

Research shows that physical activity can help prevent the development of gestational diabetes, and evidence demonstrates that exercise is safe and beneficial for women with gestational diabetes.

Women with gestational diabetes are at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. Exercise has also been shown to prevent or delay the development of Type 2 diabetes in women with a history of gestational diabetes. In one study, women who met the physical activity guidelines for moderate exercise had a 47% reduced risk.

Pregnant women with or without diabetes may be concerned about exercise, but an abundance of evidence suggests physical activity during pregnancy is safe and beneficial for both mom and baby.

How Clubs Can Help Diabetic Members

Clubs can help members with diabetes get active and stay healthy many of the same ways they help their non-diabetic members. Some of these include offering a variety of engaging classes at a variety of times, and given that time can be a barrier, possibly offering shorter 30 and 45-minute classes a few times during the week. Additionally, clubs can provide support, such as individual or small group training, nutrition education, or counseling with a dietitian, either as part of specific programs or as an added member service.

“Research shows that physical activity can help prevent the development of gestational diabetes, and evidence demonstrates that exercise is safe and beneficial for women with gestational diabetes.”

Clubs can also take steps to help their diabetic members (and all members) implement a healthy lifestyle, such as:

1. Offering Low-carb Options in Your Cafe

Many people with diabetes will be watching their carbohydrate intake. While juice and smoothies are trendy right now, they’re also high in sugar. Try offering low-carb options like almonds, salads, or jerky.

2. Offering Learning Opportunities Beyond Health or Nutrition Education

Education goes a long way, but getting members to use that advice requires support. In addition to nutrition education, offer an interactive cooking or food preparation seminar. In addition to personal or group training, offer a workshop on planning and goal setting that enables members to create and succeed with their exercise plan.

3. Focusing on Mental Health in Addition to Physical Health

A diagnosis of diabetes—or any chronic disease—can be a life-changing event. Often chronic diseases are linked to depression symptoms and lower quality of life. Try offering mind-body-focused classes like restorative yoga.

A focus on reducing stress can also benefit members who don’t yet have diabetes. Current evidence suggests a relationship between the stress hormone cortisol and Type 2 diabetes. If your club is communicating about diabetes month this November, the focus of diabetes month in 2018 is “Promoting Health After Gestational Diabetes.” More information about diabetes month can be found on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website.

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Alexandra Black Larcom @ihrsagetactive

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, is the Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy for IHRSA. She spends her days working on resources and projects that help IHRSA clubs offer effective health programs in their communities, and convincing lawmakers that policies promoting exercise are an excellent idea. Outside the office you'll most likely find Alex at the gym, running on the Charles River, or, in the fall, by a TV cheering on the Florida Gators.