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Take a Walk: Help Your Diabetes and Your Heart

9 Minutes Read

Hear from Tom Lang, a health coach with 20+ years of experience working with people with diabetes and prediabetes, on how a simple morning walk can dramatically improve your heart health and diabetes management.

The good news is that no matter your age, your line of work, how busy you are, or how “out of shape” you think you might be, you can benefit from a morning walk.

All you need is a good pair of walking shoes and the determination to go for a walk every morning no matter what, while making it a positive experience. Tell yourself: “My daily walk(s) are as important as my doctor’s appointments.” Because in some ways, they are that important.

As a health coach with 20 years of experience helping people with prediabetes and diabetes, I recommend that you go for a (brisk) walk in the morning before you eat. This simple behavior change could make a world of difference, though it’s always best to consult with your healthcare team before starting any new exercise program.

One of my clients is a 55-year-old woman who has had type 2 diabetes for the past 20 years and osteoarthritis in her back for about 30 years. In the last eight months she has lost 38 pounds (down to 322 pounds), her A1C has improved from 8.0% to 7.0%, and her use of insulin has decreased due in large part to the introduction of a morning walk. She brings a walker so she can rest whenever her back and legs hurt.

“My husband and niece walk with me, we admire nature, and I forget I’m exercising,” she told me. “It’s fun, and it encourages me to continue to lose weight and improve my health. The more weight I lose, the more my diabetes numbers improve.”

I encourage my clients to think about making small changes each day that they can achieve to become more active. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. You might say, “But I’m over 40, so my metabolism has slowed and it’s hard for me to lose weight.” I’d tell you not to give up.

Researchers have found that resting metabolism holds steady from age 20 to 60. After age 60, it decreases at less than 1% per year. The research also showed there is no real difference between the resting metabolic rates of men and women.

What does this research mean for you? It means, you have the power to boost your metabolism, burn off excess fat, and better manage your glucose levels simply by going for walks, regardless of your age and fitness level.

And there are ways to make your walks even more effective.

Walking in the morning before you eat means you’re exercising in a fasted (empty stomach) state. An analysis of 27 studies found that when you walk in the fasted state, it actually enables your body to burn more stored body fat than exercising after you’ve eaten.

Walking at a slow-to-medium pace is a generally low-intensity exercise that’s easy on your joints and body. Plus, it’s one of the easiest ways to increase your fitness level. You can make it a fun social event (with family, friends) and, best of all, it’s free! (When the weather is too cold, wet or dark to walk outdoors, walk indoors at a shopping mall.)

Walking at least 8,500 steps per day, spread over time rather than all at once, can help maintain fat burning metabolism, according to a study published earlier this year in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. If you are one of those super busy people who can't walk for long stretches of time during the day, you can also get benefits from short bursts of walking activity.

One study showed that just five quick bursts of exercise, four seconds each time, done at full effort, every hour throughout the day, can increase your fat burning metabolism by as much as 49%. This could mean walking as fast as possible up the stairs or a hill, or quick walking bursts while holding a dumbbell weight (or plastic bottle filled with water or sand) in each hand. Another study from New Zealand also showed that short bursts of intense exercise before meals could help you better manage your glucose levels – further proof that you don’t need long stretches of time to workout in order to see results.

Walking isn’t only beneficial for managing your glucose levels, it can also help keep your heart healthy. This is because walking is a form of aerobic exercise (also called cardio exercise) – other types of aerobic exercises include running, swimming, cycling, using an elliptical, jumping rope, and rowing. Aerobic exercise involves the repeated and continuous movement of large muscle groups and helps keep your heart, lungs, and blood vessels healthy.

To learn more about adding exercise to your routine, check out the article, “Get Motivated to Get Moving,” from the Know Diabetes By Heart Initiative.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), aerobic exercises, like walking, can help lower your risk for heart disease and death from heart disease, lower your blood pressure, lower triglyceride levels, and increase your cardiorespiratory fitness (it strengthens your heart and lungs).

Walking (and other forms of aerobic or cardio exercise) can have powerful effects on your heart and your health in general. According to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the heart benefits of exercising include:

  • Improving the muscles’ ability to pull oxygen out of the blood, reducing the need for the heart to pump more blood to the muscles.
  • Reducing stress hormones that can put an extra burden on the heart.
  • Enabling the heart's arteries to dilate (widen) more readily to slow your resting heart rate and lower your blood pressure.
  • Increasing the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol and lowering triglycerides.
  • Reducing body fat.
  • Helping you better manage your glucose levels.
  • Reducing chronic inflammation (over time).

A combination of aerobic or cardio exercise and strength or resistance training (such as weight lifting) is considered best for your optimum heart health. Read the American Heart Association’s guidelines for exercising here.

To learn more about the benefits of walking and exercise for managing glucose levels and improving heart health, you can check out:

This article is part of a series to help people with diabetes learn how to support heart health, made possible in part by the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association’s Know Diabetes by Heart initiative.

About Tom Lang

Tom Lang has worked as a research assistant at the pharmaceutical giant Hoechst in Germany and at The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Trained as a biologist, he lives on the west coast. He has coached people with prediabetes and diabetes for the past two decades, and he has cared for multiple family members with diabetes.