Diabetes Exercise: 7 Steps to Start Walking

Walking for exercise can boost your mood and energy. It helps many people lose weight, and you feel good doing it. But did you know it also can thwart plaque buildup in blood vessels, lower your A1C level, and improve your insulin sensitivity? To top it off, it's free, easy, and you already know how to do it. Whether you have diabetes or not, here are seven simple steps to help you incorporate walking into your daily health routine.


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People are walking more. In 2005, 56 percent of adults said they went on a 10-minute walk at least once a week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, the number rose to 62 percent. Today, about 145 million adults include walking as part of their physical activity, and it's no surprise.

"Walking allows you to be more mobile," says Devon Dobrosielski, Ph.D., researcher and exercise physiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. "It builds muscle strength, which is vital to avoiding disability, frailty, and falls later in life."

In just seven simple steps, you can jump on the bandwagon and start pounding the pavement today.

1. Make a Plan 
The best way to start a new exercise program is to schedule it. Carve time into your day and plant reminders, such as exercise clothes and shoes near your bed, to make it easy to stay on track, says Caroline Bohl, RD, CDE, a diabetes educator and personal trainer at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center in New York City.

2. Keep Yourself Motivated
Build in rewards for yourself, such as listening to a radio program, music, or a book on tape while you walk. Music can help in multiple ways: It distracts from the effort and the passage of time, and it encourages you to pick up the pace, Bohl says. Or catch up with a long-distance friend on your cell phone (as long as you're safe from traffic). Walking with a partner -- human or a pet -- helps to hold you accountable.

"When people get a dog, their physical activity goes through the roof," says Brett Ives, CDE, clinical outreach coordinator at Mount Sinai Diabetes Center in New York City. Join or form a walking club (check with your local American Diabetes Association office, gym, or YMCA) to socialize while you work out. Social media and smartphone apps can help get you moving, too. "If you've created a network on Facebook or e-mail, you motivate each other when you post regularly about your efforts," Ives says.

3. Set Goals
If you are starting from the beginning, try to get 600 steps a day for the first week. After one month, add 600 steps to the week for a total of 4,800 steps a day. A good goal is to reach 5,000 to 7,499 steps daily -- considered "somewhat active" -- or an "active" 7,500 to 9,999 steps, Wilbur says.

Once you reach your personal distance goal, raise your intensity with interval training. Quicken your pace for as long as 15 seconds, then slow to your usual intensity for up to two minutes, says Craig A. Horswill, Ph.D., clinical associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As you become stronger, lengthen the harder segments and shorten easier ones. "This is a very effective way of not only improving your fitness but also your insulin sensitivity," he says.

4. Be Prepared
Before you walk out the door, consider your blood sugar. For people with type 1 diabetes and people with type 2 who take insulin or blood glucose-lowering medications such as sulfonylureas, monitoring blood sugar before exercising is key to limit hypoglycemia. If you take one of these meds, be sure to check your blood sugar about 30 minutes before you exercise. Be especially vigilant in the first week of exercise and when temperatures or your activity duration or intensity climbs. If your blood sugar is below 120 mg/dl before working out, eat a low-fat snack that contains about 15 grams of carbohydrate, such as a piece of fruit.

"The risk of just drinking juice or sports drinks as a pre-exercise snack is that you can get on a glucose roller coaster, where the sugar spikes and comes right back down," says Brett Ives, CDE, of Mount Sinai Diabetes Center in New York City.