It’s easy to assume that anyone who’s comfortable standing on a stage in a bikini in front of hundreds of people has probably always been really fit, especially if they have type 1 diabetes—it’s just “good genetics.” Eating a healthy diet and getting to the gym just comes naturally to them—at least that’s often the assumption.
But the pursuit of fitness is merely a challenge that we all face. We all work on achieving or maintaining our health. Certainly, determination and discipline play a tremendous role in one’s ability to reach their health goals, but another huge piece of this puzzle comes to down to gradually creating your own health plan—rather than trying to fit yourself into someone else’s or change who you are and your habits overnight.
“You start out with small steps,” explains Christel Oerum, co-founder of a diabetes and fitness website, TheFitBlog.com. Today, at age 38, Christel is a competitive bikini athlete, and a personal trainer and nutrition coach. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1997 at age 19. But Christel wasn’t always lean or buff or a master of her own nutrition and exercise.
“When we moved to Santa Monica, CA, I was suddenly immersed in this environment where I was seeing all these really, really fit people and fitness professionals. I said to myself, ‘That is what I want.’ It didn’t start out as having anything to do with my diabetes, it was more that I simply wanted to be as badass about my fitness as those people are.”
Prior to moving to Santa Monica, Christel had spent over a decade trying to find an approach to managing her health and fitness that actually worked for her—an approach in which eating healthfully and committing to her workouts was just a natural part of her life.
This time, she started out slowly. Instead of buying pre-made products or packaged things, Christel began cooking more of her own food, preparing meals to take to work for lunch, and asking herself simple yet pertinent questions: “What is ‘good’ food? Is what I’m about to eat processed junk or real food? What about how much of the food I’m eating? Avocados are good for me…but that doesn’t mean I should eat as many as I want.”
The more gradual and simple improvements Christel made to her diet, the more she saw the changes in her blood sugars, too.
“All of a sudden I realized that by doing all of these things my blood sugars were better,” explains Christel, but adding more intense fitness goals to that mix added another level of complexity to managing her blood sugar and insulin doses. “I’m very analytical, so I wanted to make sure I performed optimally…but how do I do that with type 1 diabetes?”
“I Didn’t Want to Go Back to That…”
“I remember how I felt before I started really making fitness a bigger part of my life. It becomes your norm when you’re tired from rollercoaster blood sugars or constantly thirsty from highs or constantly eating more food to treat lows. When you get hold of your diabetes management, you realize how crappy you felt. I knew I didn’t want to go back to that.”
Prior to this point in her life, Christel’s A1C had generally been in the 7.5% to 8.0% range, which, according to the American Diabetes Association, translates to an EAG (estimated average glucose) of about 183 mg/dL (10.1 mmol/L), which is a range of 147 to 217 mg/dL (8.1 to 12 mmol/L).
“I had this realization: I can actually do better,” explains Christel. “All of a sudden I realized that 180 mg/dL (10 mmol/L) is a very high blood sugar compared to non-diabetic levels. I had always thought 180 mg/dL was fine. Sure, I knew it was the higher end of the range but I still thought it was acceptable for my health. Now, I see that number as very high, the way I used to see 250 mg/dL (13.8 mmol/L).”
But Christel didn’t just change her eating habits, her workouts, or blood sugar goals, she also changed her healthcare team.
“I was seeing this doctor who would just do my blood-work, give me my A1C and send me on my way. I thought, ‘Why am I coming here every 3 months? I’m getting nothing out of this.’”
When Christel tried to explain to her doctor that she wanted more from her appointments—such as more insight into improving her diabetes management for the sake of tighter control and blood sugars closer to non-diabetic range—her doctor simply didn’t understand what she meant. Today, Christel works with a doctor who understands that she wants to improve, that she has goals, that she’s eager to learn and eager to do the work to keep her A1C where she wants it, in the 5.0 to 6.0 range.
In addition to fine-tuning her insulin doses, Christel says the biggest and simplest thing she did to improve her A1C was to test her blood sugar more often and take small correction doses of insulin whenever necessary to keep her blood sugar in non-diabetic ranges as much as possible.
“I don’t care if I have to take 10 to 12 shots a day—I’ll take as many as I need to,” she says.
*Coming tomorrow: Christel’s nutrition tips