Diabetes is a common condition in seniors. More than 25 percent of Americans over 60 years of age have diabetes (10.9 million persons) and almost 400,000 Americans 65 and older are diagnosed with diabetes every year. The vast majority of these cases are type 2, as age is a risk factor for this type of diabetes.
Another condition, prediabetes, is even more common and probably affects an additional 50 percent of Americans over 65. Prediabetes is where one’s blood glucose level is above normal, but not high enough to warrant the diagnosis of diabetes. It is important for seniors to be aware of prediabetes because it is very common and greatly increases one’s risk to develop type 2 diabetes.
As you get older, preventing or managing diabetes can become a bit more challenging, but it’s not impossible. Exercising is one of the most important things you can do to take care of your health.
Managing your diabetes. There are several things you need to do to manage your diabetes, at any age. Keep your blood glucose levels at target range by making healthy changes in your meal plan and taking your medications (if indicated). Control your blood pressure and cholesterol, and quit smoking, if you do, to lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Also, increase your physical activity.
Benefits of physical activity. Physical activity is the cornerstone of diabetes management and, along with modest weight loss, it has been shown to prevent type 2 diabetes in people with prediabetes. Physical activity can take many forms, from formal exercise programs such as tai chi and walking, to just adding more activity to your day, such as working in the yard.
The benefits of physical activity are many and include helping with weight loss, raising HDL cholesterol (the good kind), lowering blood glucose levels and improving your sense of well-being. Increased activity can benefit you whether you have long-standing diabetes or are newly diagnosed.
Getting started. Older adults with diabetes should follow a few precautions when starting an exercise program. If you have heart problems, check with your health care provider before starting a strenuous exercise program.
If you are using insulin, glyburide, glipizide or glimepiride, upping your activity can increase your risk for low blood glucose (hypoglycemia). Be sure to check your blood glucose more frequently when you exercise, carry fast-acting carbohydrate and wear a medical ID bracelet.
Although everyone should wear well-fitted shoes when exercising, if you have loss of feeling in your feet (neuropathy), you should check your feet after exercise. Look for any red spots, which may indicate too much pressure from your shoes. Cushioned socks may help, but be sure they don’t make your shoes too tight.
Take your time. However you decide to increase your activity level, start slowly and increase gradually. For example if you choose walking, walk short distances at first, increasing speed and distance weekly. If you choose a program with weights, start with low weights and increase the weights little by little every month.
If you are interested in group activities, you might see if the program “Enhanced Fitness” is available in your area. Although not specifically for seniors with diabetes, this program is evidenced based and includes stretching, balance, aerobics and hand and leg weight lifting. Visit http://www.projectenhance.org/ to find a nearby program.
If you have difficulty walking, the “Sit and Be Fit” exercise program may be a better option for you. Each chair exercise program is carefully researched and designed by health professionals and exercise specialists. The program is broadcast on PBS. Please visit this website for more information: http://www.sitandbefit.org.
Resources. The American Diabetes Association has developed a guide to help adults 55 and up manage their diabetes. The Living Healthy with Diabetes booklet provides information and tips about healthy food choices, physical activity, diabetes medications, prevention and treatment of complications, traveling with diabetes, caregiving and more.
Linda Haas, CDE, RN, PhC, MN, served 34 years as the endocrinology clinical nurse specialist at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System. She is a Past President, Health Care and Education, for the Association; has served as chair of the Association’s Recognition Committee; and helped author the Association’s position statement on Diabetes in Older Adults. She currently serves on the Association’s Older Adult Subcommittee.