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When Debbie Sissmore, 56, lost her eyesight 27 years ago as a result of diabetic retinopathy, she was devastated. “I thought that my independence, career, goals, and dreams were over,” she says.

Debbie, a member of the Diabetes Dialogue editorial advisory board who has lived with type 1 diabetes since childhood, credits the support of her husband, Malcolm, and her own positive attitude for helping her adapt to a new life without sight. An active lifestyle has also played an important role. As Debbie’s eyesight began to diminish, she and Malcolm bought home gym equipment and a tandem bicycle (built for two riders). Later, she started long-distance running with the help of a running guide; over the years, she has participated in countless short races, half-marathons, and marathons. Although a chronic injury means she has not done any long-distance running for the past 10 years, she continues with a fitness routine including short sprints plus Tabata training (a high-intensity training workout). “Being active helps with my blood glucose [sugar] levels and is also a great way to maintain good mental and emotional well-being,” she says.

Running is just one way that people with diabetes complications can keep fit and prevent the development of more diabetes complications, says Sara Hodson, a certified clinical exercise specialist and founder of Vancouver-based Live Well Exercise Clinics. “Depending on your physical abilities and health status, running, walking, stationary cycling, and resistance training with machines or dumbbells may all be excellent exercise options.”

Before you increase your activity level, consult with your health-care team. Then contact an exercise professional who has experience working with people who are living with complications of diabetes.

Hodson offers these suggestions for two common diabetes-related complications:


Challenge: High blood sugar levels over a long period of time can damage blood vessels in the retina, resulting in vision loss. You may cause further damage if you do any activities that increase your blood pressure; for example, lifting heavy weights and doing exercises such as Downward Dog where you have to bend forward so that your head is lower than your heart. Also, it can be hard to navigate a room filled with exercise machines and fellow exercisers when you have a visual impairment. 

Choose: gyms and community centres that have quieter times when you will not be jostled by other exercisers. Also, look for facilities with plenty of space around each piece of equipment. 

“For cardiovascular fitness, walking indoors or outdoors is an excellent option,” says Hodson, “but always walk with a friend who has good vision.”

Kidney disease

Challenge: Regular exercise can help slow the progress of kidney disease and reduce the risk of more complications, such as cardiovascular disease. However, exercise that is too intense can result in joint pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and muscle weakness for people with kidney disease.

Choose: Gentle exercises. “Aim for an exertion level of ‘two’ or ‘light’ on a scale where one is ‘very light’ and 10 is ‘maximum effort,’” says Hodson. “Start with five to 10 minutes of walking, swimming, or stationary cycling, gradually adding one to two minutes as you are able.” The most beneficial effect of light exercise may be to help
with the extreme fatigue commonly reported by people with kidney disease. “Physical activity is a very effective mood lifter, which is particularly important because people with kidney disease often suffer from depression,” she says.

Did You Know?

Sometimes, changing how you think about possible barriers to physical activity is all you need to get going. If you are not sure how to get started or have concerns about exercising with diabetes, visit Staying Healthy with Diabetes.

Do you have a story about the difference physical activity has made for you and your health? Please let us know. 

(This article appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Spring 2019)

Author: Barb Gormley

Category Tags: Healthy Living;

Region: National

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