Low-impact Aerobics: Diabetes Exercise Option

Here's a predicament you may find yourself in:  you have diabetes and you know you need to exercise, but you can't do a lot of typical high-impact exercise because you have osteoporosis or another condition that limits you.  This is completely understandable, but there are plenty of exercise options for you—so that you can take care of your diabetes and your other condition, too!

You've heard, I'm sure, of aerobic exercise.  Most of us think of high-impact aerobics, but there are low-impact aerobic exercise options, too, and this article will review those, as well as special exercise considerations for people who have diabetes.

Is Aerobic Exercise Good for People with Diabetes?

Aerobic exercise is sustained activity involving major muscle groups, such as swimming, running, or brisk walking. Your heart and respiratory rate increase, and more oxygen is circulated through the body. This type of exercise strengthens your cardiovascular system and increases your overall strength and stamina.

All of these benefits can help you avoid long-term complications of diabetes, such as cardiovascular issues.

The goal of aerobic is for your pulse to reach a training rate that is appropriate for your age (there's a list of appropriate ranges for different age groups in this article). You must stay at that rate for 20 minutes, and you should exercise 3 times a week in order to gain benefits of aerobic exercise.

In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends aerobic exercise (such as aerobic dancing, walking, bicycling, or swimming) be done 3 times a week for at least 20 minutes at 60% of the maximum heart rate. Doing less will minimize your benefits.

Low-impact Aerobics for Older Diabetics

Low-impact aerobics are those movements involving large muscle groups used in continuous rhythmic activity in which at least one foot contacts the floor at all times.

It has evolved to decrease the lower leg overuse injuries associated with high-impact classes. This type of exercise is ideal for special populations such as seniors, pregnant women, and overweight people.

Low-impact aerobics is an excellent way to begin an exercise program for those who have not exercised for some time and who want to ease into a program.

The guidelines for these programs include arm and leg movements which are controlled, as problems with the knee may occur due to repetitive use of a flexed knee.

With low-impact aerobics, more fit people may have difficulty achieving adequate intensity; therefore, they are told to use larger movements. Using large arm movements in the upper body will also increase the intensity of the movements.

What does this mean for you if you need to do low-impact aerobics?  It means that when you begin a walking program, you may walk at a slow rate and keep your hands in your pockets and still be able to get your heart rate up; however, as you become fit, you may have to increase your step length and rate and move your arms as you walk to get to the same level.

In fact, at that level you may want to graduate to a low-impact step class or dance class, but you don't need to worry about that right now.

Each exercise session should start with a warm-up and gentle stretching.  It should end with a cool-down. Hardwood or flooring with some cushioning is best for all aerobic activities. A floor that is too soft may cause ankle sprains.

Low-impact Aerobic Exercise Options

Aerobic activity is an important adoption to low and moderate-intensity exercise. Some examples of these activities are:

  • walking
  • bicycling
  • swimming
  • dancing
  • racket sports such as tennis
  • rowing
  • cross country skiing
  • using aerobic equipment like a treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical machine, etc.
  • water aerobics and water walking
  • ice skating

There are also non-aerobic activities and classes you can try.  These are important to maintain flexibility and muscle leanness.  Some example are:

  • yoga
  • Pilates
  • circuit classes
  • body sculpting classes
  • balance classes

Target Heart Rate

We have alluded to your target heart rate in this article, so we thought we'd bring you this chart that should be posted in every gym.

Remember that you are heading toward a heart rate that is 50% to 75% of the average maximum rate for your age group.

  • In your 20s:  98-146 beats per minute
  • In your 30s:  93-138 beats per minute
  • In your 40s:  88-131 beats per minute
  • In your 50s:  83-123 beats per minute
  • 60s and older:  78-116 beats per minute

Exercising with Osteoporosis

If you have osteoporosis (which is when your bones aren't as strong as they should be and they're more prone to fracture—you can learn more about osteoporosis on our sister site EndocrineWeb), you'll still need to exercise.

There are precautions for you in terms of types of exercise you can do.  You should avoid activities such as bowling or golf, which cause a twisting of the body and can lead to broken bones.

Good exercises for those with osteoporosis are: 

  • step aerobics
  • water aerobics
  • walking
  • Tai Chi and low-impact martial arts
  • dancing
  • hiking
  • swimming

Low-impact Aerobic Exercise Benefts for People with Diabetes

So there are no excuses for not trying low-impact exercise to get into the groove.

The good thing about regular exercise is that it makes you feel just plain good. It will help to control your blood glucose levels and protect your body as you strengthen your muscles.

Your heart and lungs will get a work out and perform better.

The endorphins will make you feel good, that is, raise your mood.

To tell the truth, a day without exercise will become a day that has less sunshine (at least to me).

But, and here's the but that will make you know that you have medical problems:  you must see your physician regularly when you exercise and even more importantly, before you start a program.

Exercise Precautions for Diabetics

You must know how to deal with a hypoglycemic event if you take a medication that has that side effect.

You need to know which exercises are best for you and your long- and short-term goals.  These should be discussed with your health care team so you are all on the same page.  Climbing a mountain may be out of the question for someone with diabetic neuropathy of the feet, but hiking may be okay.  It will depend on you and your health.

If you begin an exercise program, make sure you have shared with an exercise partner or someone at your gym what you look like if you are having an insulin event or become hypoglycemic.

Make sure you know exactly how much carbohydrate to ingest to raise your blood glucose level.

I carry glucose tablets when I go on hard hikes or try something new. I also know my blood glucose levels before I begin any class, whether it is high or low-impact aerobics.

If I begin to feel "funny," I stop and retake my blood glucose.

My friends have come to my rescue more times than I can say when I have become unaware of my surroundings and they know I am becoming hypoglycemic. They know never to over-treat the event as, even with a very low blood glucose level, I know not to eat a candy bar or many glucose tablets. Low impact classes take some of these problems away as your heart will probably not beat as fast as in a moderate-impact class.

Updated on: April 14, 2011