A Dirty Diabetic Secret


Since it’s November 14th, I feel like I’m supposed to start this blog post by acknowledging that it’s International Diabetes Day. But since diabetes isn’t a typical holiday, I’m not sure the best way to phrase this. “Happy World Diabetes Day!” doesn’t seem quite right. “Wishing You Peace This Diabetes Season” is a bit kinder, but still off. “Diabetes Day 2011: Condolences To You And Your Family” probably wouldn’t sell well at Hallmark. Here’s the best I’ve got: I went to a meditation class this weekend in which they had us practice the mantra “May I be safe, may I be healthy, may I be happy, may I live with ease” — and though I had difficulty internalizing the words, the phrase “may I live with ease” seemed like a particularly appropriate aspiration for life with diabetes. So, to all you people with diabetes out there, today is international diabetes day. May you live with ease.

Anyway, the title of this post refers not to a diabetic philosophy (though I guess I just went there), but to something I’ve discovered in my post-surgery recovery. As you may know, I had shoulder surgery about 10 weeks ago, and I’m still not able to go back to my normal fitness routine. When I first heard about what my limitations would be after surgery (namely, nothing AT ALL for six weeks), I freaked out a little bit. “But how can I control my blood sugar without exercise?” I asked my surgeon. “My glucose levels will be crazy.” 

My surgeon, who thinks (probably correctly) that I myself am a bit crazy, eventually responded by cutting back my no-exercise time to five weeks, saying something like “Diabetes gives you enough trouble — I can give you one week.” I appreciated this, but after I got out of the operating room I was still bracing myself for five weeks of horrible high blood sugar, first from the pain, and later from the lack of activity.

But bizarrely, they did not occur. I ended up having five straight weeks of amazingly consistent blood sugar. In retrospect, I think part of this was due to the fact that since I was not exercising, I was also not very hungry: I ended up losing about five pounds without trying (granted, much of this weight was muscle lost from my right arm, but I’m pretending it was from my thighs). And not eating much (or craving any foods) also means that it’s not so tough to manage your bs. For me, at least, not exercising leads to not eating which leads to great blood sugar (and a slenderness due to reduced muscle mass).  How’s that for an absolutely horrible take-home message?

Of course, I am not into leaving well enough alone and as soon as those five weeks were up, I went straight to a spinning class at the gym (my logic being that I’d been cleared for aerobic activity, and if I stayed sitting, I wouldn’t be using my shoulder). I managed to pull on some spandex and showed up at a Sunday morning class, a little nervous because it had been so long since I’d done anything remotely athletic. This fear proved founded: about fifteen minutes into the class, I felt like I was going to throw up. 

Part of the problem, it turned out, was my endurance. Part of it was that I’d unknowingly signed up for a teacher who does not give breaks, ever (it’s basically a straight 45 minutes). But part of it was that my blood sugar had begun to plummet, tanking somewhere around 50 and only making it back up to 70-something, despite a packet of Gu and some sugar tablets. I hopped off the bike and stood by the lockers for a bit, coming closer to feeling like I might faint than I almost ever have (I’m not sure which of the three above factors was the most to blame). Then, after the class, my blood sugar shot up. 

That was by far the scariest exercise-related low I’ve had recently, but I’ve noticed that adding exercise back into my life actually makes diabetes more challenging, not less. I’m realizing that some of the questions that I used to deal with all the time evaporate if I cut out exercise. For example, if I’m taking an 8:30am spin class, there’s no good way for me to eat breakfast beforehand: I can either underbolus, leading to a temporary high before the exercise brings my bs back down, or give myself a normal bolus and risk tanking once I start moving. The alternative — not eating breakfast — also doesn’t make me feel good. Cut out exercise, on the other hand, and I can eat breakfast AND give myself an effective bolus. Amazing! 

I’m not saying I now believe that exercise is bad for blood sugar — anyone can tell you that taking a walk after a meal does great things for insulin sensitivity. And the health benefits of exercise outweigh the diabetic challenges. But it’s interesting to see that the kind of exercise I typically do — namely, intense stuff, often with lots of weights — actually complicates my diabetic life, rather than making it easier. It makes me wonder if there are any other other hard and annoying activities that I force myself to do every day that it might actually be beneficial to eliminate.


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Bridget McNulty
11 years ago

I’ve always found that regular, mild exercise is best for my blood sugar.
My new best friend is a pedometer, and on days when I do ‘enough’ steps (which only has to be 5000 – 8000 steps) my blood sugar behaves. I can go hiking or walk fast or up hills or whatever, but because it is by nature such mild exercise, it only does me good.
My brother-in-law is into intensive endurance exercise and it plays havoc with his blood sugar… I guess it’s handy that I don’t have any desire for that kind of workout!

11 years ago

When your blood sugars go high after exercising, its because you didn’t have enough energy on board to match the falling of the bl. s as you were exercising.  When bl. s goes down too fast, the liver has a large store of glucose which it dumps into the bloodstream.  This is seen in non-diabetics as the “second wind” syndrome.  i.e. when you get tired from exercising and you keep going, you miraculously get more energy.  This is just the liver dumping its load The liver doesn’t have any discernment about how much sugar it dumps, it just dumps it… Read more »

Jessica Apple
11 years ago

I love this post.  When I typed “Happy WDD” on FB yesterday, I was thinking about now “not right” it felt. So, I’m totally with on let’s all live with ease
Interesting about the exercise and blood sugar control.  Very interesting.

11 years ago

Very thought provoking.  I think you can say the same thing about eating.  It would be much easier to manage blood sugar if you didn’t have to do that too.  Its a crazy business we’re in!

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