Exercise is the best medicine to manage Type 1 diabetes
Ever since I was a young kid I’ve been intrigued with the human body (both physically and physiologically), as well as had a keen interest in science and nutrition. My love for all of those topics is what sent me on the path to becoming a qualified health professional.
I’ve always considered myself a ‘healthy’ person, but it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 23 that I began to understand the true meaning of the word. Sure, my world shifted when I was first diagnosed, but after making positive changes to the way I live, eat, move and approach life, I can honestly say I am happier and healthier today than I was before my diagnosis. So in a way you could say that diabetes gave me the gift of health.
Diabetes is a very small part of what makes me Drew. I’m an exercise physiologist, diabetes educator, sport scientist and most importantly – I’m a happy and healthy guy thriving with type 1 diabetes. I’ve not only accepted living with it, I’ve learned to love it and manage it so that it doesn’t manage me.
I’ve always been a very active and sporty guy, but that didn’t mean I was holistically healthy. I used to exercise mostly for aesthetic purposes. Put simply, I wanted to look like the guys on the cover of the fitness magazines. Whilst we all have an element of vanity, I don’t think it should be the driving force to get fit.
I used to eat a diet fairly high in carbs with most of them coming from grains. I thought I was doing everything right because I was following the conventional wisdom of healthy eating guided by the old food pyramid.
Diabetes was my wake up call to not only rethink how I was eating and moving, but it very quickly let me know that I was far from invincible. It allowed me to take a look at the bigger picture. I became aware that I had been overlooking many of the other aspects of life that contribute towards being healthy and happy.
The day I was diagnosed with diabetes, I was told by the clinic to go home and resume my normal daily routine. That included eating my usual meals, exercising, working, etc. However, I would need to frequently log my blood sugar readings, especially before and after meals and exercise.
Its important to note, being day one of diagnosis, I wasn’t taking any insulin at all. The aim was to monitor my blood sugar levels and identify any lifestyle-related trends before calculating my insulin requirements.
I remember eating a banana before going to the gym that day. It shot my blood glucose level up to 22 mmol/L (normal range is approx 4-6 mmol/L). I was devastated. Completely and utterly distraught. I went to the gym and did my usual workout which consisted of lifting weights for about 45-60 minutes. After my workout I checked my blood sugar levels again expecting to see the same number as before – but that wasn’t the case at all.
My post gym reading was 6 mmol/L. I was shocked! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I picked up my jaw from off the ground and said to myself: “This exercise thing is some pretty powerful stuff!”.
Growing up I was always told to exercise because “it’s good for you” but I never truly had a way to quantify it. That was the first time I discovered how effective exercise really is.
Nowadays my routine is first and foremost about managing my disease, but more importantly its about being healthy and happy in a balanced and sustainable way. My training has shifted from typical bodybuilding routines towards getting stronger, more functional, flexible and athletic. I train indoors and outdoors, in the ocean and on the land. I discovered that walking is such a useful tool to stabilise blood sugar levels so now I walk after most meals. I lift weights, sprint, train calisthenics, play sports, surf…the list goes on. It really is a balanced approach to living and moving. Oh and nice byproduct is I ended up in the best shape of my life.
Diet wise I eat a 100% real, whole, natural food. Nothing refined or out of packets. My carbohydrate intake matches my activity levels. I no longer eat any grains or gluten. I follow a palo autoimmune protocol and the results have been amazing, both physically and physiologically.
I see diabetes (and any other form of adversity) as an amplifier. It has the ability to amplify whatever you already have. If you’re strong – it will make you stronger. If you’re weak – it can make you weaker. I’ve seen diabetes completely derail people and I’ve seen it build others.
The day I was diagnosed with diabetes was without a doubt the most difficult day of my life. I fought back tears in front of my parents as they sobbed for what felt like an eternity, just so I could show them that I was brave and that everything would be alright. The first time I really understood the meaning of the phrase “the world caved in” was when I saw it with my own two eyes. For a brief moment I really did think that life was over. I thought it would never be the same and it felt a bit like a death sentence. It was a dark period of time around my diagnosis – but it didn’t last long.
My mindset took a u-turn when I realised that I still have a huge element of control over my health. Not only in how I manage my condition but in preventing other conditions from manifesting in the future. After much self-experimentation and excellent results, my mind was shifted forever. I always say: diabetes is what taught me how to turn adversity into opportunity. They really are synonymous.
I encourage all people with diabetes to become experts in their own self-management, however being surrounded by family, friends and loved ones who are supportive and understanding is absolutely critical. There are so many intricate details that go into managing diabetes, and many of them effect the people around you. I’ve been blessed to have patient people by my side who are always willing to help me when I need it,whether it’s psychologically or physically.
Diabetes certainly has its challenges. I guess the initial diagnosis is the most difficult part. It’s a life-changing condition that happens in the blink of an eye. For many people it can manifest in the form of ketoacidosis and a trip to the hospital, for others it can be as simple as a finger prick test or a blood test at the doctor. Not only does it effect the individual, but it has a flow-on effect to family and friends. Every aspect of life takes a knock. Socially, it can be very confronting at first to test glucose levels and administer insulin in public. Eating out and drinking alcohol can be problematic too.
Physically there are body image issues related to the rapid weight loss prior to diagnosis, as well as the rapid weight gain that follows after the onset of treatment.
Then there is the psychological hurdle of knowing that it is a chronic illness that can have frightening short- and long-term complications if it is not managed properly. Things like severe hypoglycaemic episodes resulting in loss of consciousness, seizures, comas and in the worst case scenario death. Additionally there are long term hyerpglycemic related issues such as nephropathy, neuropathy and retinopathy.
Oh, and lets not forget the stigma. The majority of laymen out there think that diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar. Whilst it may be partly true for type 2 diabetes, it just isn’t the case for type 1. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune diseases whereby the immune system destroys the insulin producing cells of the pancreas.
Diabetes is a serious condition not to be taken lightly but it is certainly not a death sentence.
On a personal level I have fully come to terms with my condition. Yes, daily life consists of frequent finger pricking and insulin injecting, but outside of that – life is completely normal. In fact I will go as far to say that life is better than ever before. Diabetes has given me a new perspective on life and it has allowed me to make the most out of every single moment. I look and feel better than ever before and holistically I am a more well rounded individual.
Exercise and diabates can definitely be complicated, but without a doubt the biggest misconception about exercise and type 1 diabetes is that it is dangerous. I cringe as a say those two words in the same sentence because exercise is literally medicine when it comes to diabetes.
As an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, a big problem that I see in practice is that people with type 1 diabetes are afraid to exercise (and even afraid to partake in activities of daily living) in case their blood sugar level drops too low. The result: a sedentary individual on significantly more insulin than they could be taking but surviving, rather than an active individual on less insulin who is thriving.
Its kind of like a builder having a fear of using their most effective and reliable tool. It just doesn’t make sense does it. Having a fear of using your biggest asset is a terrible situation to be in.
Exercise is not dangerous. Too much insulin is dangerous. I use exercise as a daily tool to stabilise my blood sugar levels as well as reduce my insulin requirements. In fact exercise can actually be more effective than insulin when it comes to stabilising blood sugar levels due to its mechanistic properties.
If you cant walk around the block without having a hypoglycaemic episode then you’re taking too much insulin for an active lifestyle.
I want to make it clear that exercise really is a form of medication that you can freely and happily administer daily in order to thrive with diabetes.
My Philosophy is: “In order to thrive with diabetes I need to take 2 types of medicine daily: Insulin and exercise – with exercise being at the core”. In other words, my daily dose of insulin is dependant upon my daily dose of exercise – NOT the other way around. So on days when I don’t exercise – I require more insulin. It is quite simply a balancing act between two medications for optimal insulin and blood sugar control
Do not fear it – respect and embrace it.
If you are managing your diabetes by only using insulin you are missing out on an entire dose of medicine which will optimise your diabetes management and overall health outcomes.
If you factor in a daily dose of exercise, you can reduce your total daily insulin requirements, ultimately reducing any exercise related anxiety that you may be experiencing.
Unfortunately when people think of exercise they picture a soul-destroying boot camp where each and every session is run by a trainer who stands an inch from your face and yells at you. Exercise is not about blood, sweat and tears like what you see on the biggest loser, in fact that is the total opposite of how it should be portrayed.
For a start – use your body! Don’t worry about fancy equipment or a gym membership, just get good at moving your own bodyweight. You can walk, jog, and sprint. You can do push ups on a bench, wall or floor. Or try pull ups on a bar. You can do squats, lunges or simply ‘sit-to-stands’. Try boxing, jumping and skipping. The options are endless. Just start moving in a way that feels right for you.
There are no rules when it comes to exercise. By contracting your muscles (regardless of the resistance) you’re sending positive messages systemically and creating a sponge-like effect by which excess blood sugar can get soaked up into the muscles.
Exercise is your key to preventing, managing and possibly even reversing glycemic related illnesses. Stop seeing exercise as something you ‘have to’ do because your doctor said so. See it as something you ‘want to’ do because it makes you feel alive. A nice byproduct is it will also get you into the best shape of your life.
I post a lot of exercise tips and nutrition tips on my instagram account @_drewsdailydose
In a nutshell my method of saying fit and in good shape is: I get a daily dose of ‘The 5 Pillars’. There’s more information on my website, but basically being healthy and fit takes a balanced holistic approach. There is no quick fix.
I strive to control my blood sugar levels optimally whilst being as insulin sensitive as possible. I move as much as possible, lift weights, train calisthenics, play sports , etc. I eat the majority my carbohydrates before and after training. I eat enough protein and fat to support healthy hormone levels, energy levels and muscle growth.
I honestly don’t know where I would be today if I didn’t have diabetes. Diabetes is not merely a disease, it’s a way of life. One thing that not many people know about me is that I am a singer-songwriter. I have recently finished recording my first 3 track EP which I will be launching in the next month or so. Before diabetes music was definitely my biggest passion. It took a backseat after I was diagnosed but it certainly didn’t disappear. So I guess I would be a singing, songwriting exercise physiologist trying to juggle the two.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to my diabetes. I express all of my thoughts and emotions without holding back, and I feel a whole lot better for it. Sometimes the personification of things really helps to express yourself.
When you came into my life at the age of 23, I had absolutely no idea who you were or what you were capable of. I’d heard of you before, but you were just a name without a face. At first I thought you were here to destroy my world. I hated everything about you. You arrived with no warning whatsoever and you ruthlessly took over. You didn’t only affect me — you affected my entire family and friends too. But It wasn’t until I really started getting to know you that my life changed…for the better.
On the day that we first met, I was told by the medical professionals that there would be a whole range of things that I wouldn’t be able to do with you in my life. Apparently it was time to wave goodbye to traveling to remote places, experiencing adventures, and physical pursuits. Apparently life would forever be difficult and dangerous; multiple daily insulin injections and finger pricks, a constant battle with a roller-coaster of blood sugar levels, frightening short and long term complications, and that’s just naming a few.
The truth is, it has turned out to be quite the opposite. I have realised now that you didn’t come to destroy my world – you came to change the way I view it. You are no longer faceless. Life is one big adventure. You have given me more than you were apparently meant to ‘take’ from me. You’ve allowed me to do more than I would have otherwise done in this world…and I’m only just getting started!
You’ve given me direction, purpose, perspective, and even a career. You’ve helped me drive my passion for health and wellness towards a bigger, better cause.
You’ve taught me so much about exercise, nutrition, and the importance of a balanced, healthy lifestyle. You’ve taught me how to be mindful in everything that I do, and as a result, I’m able to really live in the moment every single day. You’ve shown me that I am always capable of rebuilding no matter how broken down I may be. You’ve allowed me to grow in more ways than I can even explain. You’ve shown me that in the face of adversity – I step up. You’ve let me in on so many secrets about human physiology. You’ve developed my mental strength beyond what I thought was possible and you’ve helped me get in the best physical shape of my life.
You’ve taught me how to take control and responsibility for my health, regardless of the cards I’m dealt.
If not for you, I honestly don’t know if I would be where I am today – healthier and happier than ever before.
So I guess this letter is not a ‘stuff you’ – it’s a ‘thank you’.
I want to thank you for all of the good things that you’ve brought into my life. I know that you affect the lives of so many people across the world and I truly hope you can have the same impact on them as you’ve had on me.
I will always respect you – but I will not fear you.
I will walk alongside you as a partner – but I will not let you rule me.
I promise to never stop learning from the valuable lessons that you teach me every single day.
I no longer hate you – in fact I’ve even grown to love you.
If you decide to leave me one day, your departure will be welcomed, but in a weird way I’m glad you came.