Exercises Ideas for the Elderly Living with Diabetes

Managing Diabetes Through Movement: An Exercise Guide For The Elderly

If you are a senior living with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, you may be wondering if you can manage your diabetes and lower your HbA1c without medications.  For example with exercise, along with a proper diet and supplemental vitamin therapy.

The answer is a resounding yes!

Following a diabetic exercise plan suited to your specific needs offers many benefits for the elderly with this chronic health condition such as:

  • Better blood sugar control
  • Weight loss
  • Improved balance and flexibility

Choosing an activity you enjoy is key to success!  Enjoying the exercise will help you  stick with it long term.  Once you find an exercise you enjoy, you also must be ever mindful of your safety.  This includes checking your blood sugar before and after exercise to avoid unexpected low blood sugar episodes, called hypoglycemia, and staying hydrated.

Read on to discover the many benefits of incorporating a diabetic exercise plan into your daily routine, along with some suggestions for some great activities you might like to try!

What Are The Benefits of Exercise for The Elderly With Diabetes?

One important advantage of exercise is that it increases your sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that helps your cells convert blood glucose into energy, or to be stored for future use. Being physically active while managing diabetes can help you:

  • Control your blood sugar levels, and even lower your HbA1c
  • Keep your blood pressure in a healthy range
  • Think and recall things more clearly
  • Lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol level
  • Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight
  • Improve your balance and flexibility
  • Have higher quality, restorative sleep
  • Lowers cortisol levels for less stress
  • Reduce your risk of falling and the injuries that may arise from a fall

One study found that exercise in seniors with diabetes increased the circulation of certain substances in the body that repair vascular and neuronal damage. This in turn may reduce the risk for heart disease and dementia, which are two common diabetes complications. Another study found that moderate-to high-intensity exercises helped elderly with type 2 diabetes not only control their blood sugar levels, but also improve their self-esteem, quality of life, and independence. Exercise is also an important self-care mindset to help with hypertension!

Safe And Effective Exercises For Diabetic Seniors

A recent 2023 study found that building strength and aerobic exercise in general can help improve blood glucose levels in people with diabetes and obesity. This is all well and good, however, the key to sticking to an exercise regimen is choosing activities you love to do!  While there are many types of physical activities available, not all exercises are appropriate for an older adult. 

 Here are four exercise ideas that are easy, fun, and safe for most seniors to try!

1. Walking: Walking is a simple, tried-and-true fitness staple. You can do it almost anywhere—in your neighborhood, at the track, on the beach, or in the city. Taking a walk at a moderate pace for at least 15 minutes gets your blood flowing and your heart pumping. It also provides a built-in opportunity for sightseeing and socializing with your favorite people. During inclement weather, why not take a walk through your local mall, or even try a walking DVD for a great aerobic walking workout indoors

Nordic Walk for Diabetes
Side view full length of overweight black woman walking outdoors with nordic poles and enjoying cardio workout, copy space

2. Dancing: Whether with a partner or alone, choreographed dancing, or even a Zumba class geared for seniors, stimulates your brain, improves memory, improves flexibility, eases anxiety levels, and burns lots of carbs and calories! If you have limited mobility, chair dancing is a safe, enjoyable alternative. Got two left feet, and don’t want to dance in public? Don’t let that stop you! Turn on your favorite music and dance around your house! You will still reap all the health benefits dance offers, while having a blast!

3. Yoga: The ancient practice of Yoga has many facets and levels, from beginning to advanced, which aims to enhance strength, balance, and flexibility through gentle, fluid movements and stretches. It promotes mind-body connectedness and helps reduce stress and anxiety levels. No matter your age or level of fitness, the beauty of Yoga is you can find a practice that can be tailored to your specific needs and goals. For example, Chair Yoga is a practical alternative for older adults with mobility challenges.

Yoga for Diabetes

4. Weight training: Resistance exercises and weight training help build lean muscle mass, which is crucial for seniors with diabetes. This is because losing muscle mass makes it more difficult to maintain stable blood sugar levels. When you build a layer of muscle, your metabolism naturally increases, allowing your body to burn more carbs and calories, even at rest!  Amazing! Remember, strength training does not necessarily mean lifting big, heavy weights and “bulking up”. You can achieve great results using machines, small free weights, resistance bands, or even your own body weight as resistance!

Group workouts for diabetes

Evidence-based Falls Prevention Programs Can Also Improve Fitness

There are several proven, evidence-based falls prevention programs designed to improve fitness levels in the elderly while also reducing the risk of falls and the injuries that may occur resulting from a fall.

  1. Tai Chi for Arthritis: This ancient form of exercise, which originates from China, has been shown to benefit many aspects of health. The Tai Chi for Arthritis and Fall Prevention program is especially beneficial for seniors with diabetes. It features safe, gentle, and effective movements that can help you improve your balance, strength, flexibility, and even your immunity. Tai Chi for Arthritis also relieves stress, promotes relaxation, and gives you the opportunity to enrich your social connections. These classes can be taken online (YouTube) or in-person!
  2. Swimming/Water Aerobics: Whether in the ocean, in your neighbor’s pool, or at the local community center, swimming and water aerobics are ideal low-impact activities for the elderly with diabetes. The buoyancy you feel from being suspended in the water is easy on your joints, making it a good option for those with arthritis or mobility issues.  Swimming and water aerobics also burns carbs, calories and increases relaxation. You can even add water weights and boards for extra resistance.  Always be mindful if you are swimming in public, however. It is a good practice to notify the lifeguard on duty that you have diabetes before you get into the water, so that he/she can watch for signs of hypoglycemia.
  3. Yardwork: So, maybe yard work is not your favorite thing to do. But basic outdoor chores like mowing the lawn, pruning, weeding, and planting provide a healthy dose of exercise while at the same time shrinking your honey-do list! In fact,did you know that just 30-45 minutes of working in the yard can torch up to 150 calories? Incredible!  Remember, when spending time outside, make it a good habit to wear a sun hat for protection from the heat, take plenty of breaks, and stay hydrated!
  4. If you like to exercise with other people, and make new possible friendships along the way, find your local agency on aging and ask if they can recommend a location that offers any of these activities. Many senior centers in your area offer a wide variety of programs.

How many hours of exercise are recommended for seniors with diabetes?

According to the American Diabetes Association, seniors with diabetes should aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. While that may seem like a daunting amount, you can break it up into smaller chunks! For example, you could plan to exercise 30 minutes for 5 days, or 50 minutes three times a week. Try not to go more than 48 hours without exercising, however, as this will help maximize the benefits of your blood sugar management over time.

When it comes to exercising with diabetes, especially if you have previously led a sedentary lifestyle, start slowly-baby steps!  Choose an easy activity, like walking your dog down the street, walking up and down your stairs, or walking to your mailbox. Then, gradually increase your time and intensity to the ultimate goal of 150 minutes weekly. It’s not a marathon! You do not have to climb a mountain!

More Tips For Exercises For The Elderly With Diabetes Include:

  • Prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of water before, during, and following physical activity.
  • Learn how your body responds to activity by checking your blood sugar both before and after a workout.
  • Wear identification stating you have diabetes. This will let others know in case of an emergency.
  • If it is too cold or hot outside, opt for either exercising indoors or reschedule your workout for another day.
  • Wear cotton socks and well-fitting athletic shoes.
  • After exercising, check your feet for cuts, sores, irritations, and other injuries. If they’re not healing well within a couple of days, contact your care team.
  • Put ‘daily exercise’ on your calendar or as a reminder on your phone or tablet. Treat it like an important appointment-with yourself! The more activity you engage in, the more habitual it will become—and the better you will feel physically, emotionally and mentally.

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