May 01, 2023
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Beyond healthy eating and taking prescribed medications, exercise and stress reduction can help maintain blood sugar control. Fortunately, many of these lifestyle adjustments are also free.
Early on in my type 2 diabetes diagnosis, I’d get frustrated whenever my blood sugar rose without explanation. I’d take my medication as prescribed, eat a low carb meal, or complete a great workout — only to see high numbers.
I’ve since learned that dozens of things can affect blood glucose, including stress and hormone changes. While some of this is out of our control, there are many lifestyle changes that can make an impact, including staying active and taking steps to manage stress.
But if you’re living on a tight budget like me, it may be difficult or even impossible to cover the cost of a gym membership or yoga classes.
Fortunately, there are plenty of low cost or free ways to add self-care to your diabetes regimen.
Exercise is essential for managing type 2 diabetes. Exercise can lower blood sugar levels, increase insulin sensitivity, and reduce cardiovascular risk factors.
Both aerobic exercise and resistance training have numerous benefits. We typically think of resistance training as involving weights and machines, the kind of thing gyms specialize in. But the ongoing cost of a gym membership can be prohibitive. And buying your own equipment can be equally, if not more, expensive.
Fortunately, you don’t need gym equipment to train your muscles. You can strengthen them by lifting nothing but your body weight through targeted moves like those in yoga. And you don’t have to stretch your dollars to cover classes at a yoga studio either, which can be even pricier than a gym membership.
There’s a wealth of free content online taught by certified yoga instructors, even yoga classes specifically for people with diabetes. You only need to search YouTube for a lifetime supply of free yoga instruction.
You can also find plenty of free online content for aerobic exercises, such as walking workouts or dancing exercises.
Exercise doesn’t have to be limited to structured workouts. Even the activities of daily life, such as housework and gardening, add up when movement is involved.
Plus, although 150 minutes per week (30 minutes per day, 5 days a week) is the standard guideline, as little as 10 minutes a day can make a difference.
I try to build activity into my day by taking the stairs whenever possible or parking my car at the far end of the parking lot to get in more walking.
Speaking of walking, it’s one of the best activities for people with type 2 diabetes.
Heavy, intense workouts may increase the hormone cortisol, which can raise blood sugar levels. But other research found that walking, especially in nature, can give you all the benefits of exercise without the corresponding cortisol spike. In fact, it may actually reduce cortisol levels. And you can walk outside for no cost at all.
If the weather doesn’t permit walking outdoors, you can walk inside for free. I once thought walking indoors meant I’d have to invest in an expensive treadmill. But then I discovered free videos on YouTube for walking workouts you can do in your living room — no equipment required.
Managing stress makes a difference for people with type 2 diabetes because stress releases the hormone cortisol, and cortisol signals your body to release glucose.
It’s the fight or flight response; the influx of glucose fuels your body to face the perceived stressor. But those of us with type 2 diabetes aren’t well-equipped to handle sudden influxes of glucose, so the sugar lingers in our bloodstream for longer.
Most modern-day stressors don’t require us to fight or flee. For example, we don’t typically need a sudden rush of glucose to run from a bear in the woods. Regardless, we may experience a similar stress response when fighting with our kids or significant other or even simply facing the busyness of an average day.
You can learn to react differently to your stress triggers with interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy, as research shows. But if your medical insurance doesn’t cover the cost, therapy can be prohibitively expensive.
Fortunately, there are plenty of free ways to manage stress. These include mindfulness activities like walking in nature and doing yoga, which let you get the proverbial “two birds with one stone” and get in your exercise and reduce stress.
Alternatively, you can practice meditation, which reduces stress both in the moment and cumulatively over time. If you’re unsure how to start, search online for free content, including guided meditation videos.
Or you can do simple breathwork. For example, when you feel yourself starting to get stressed, pause and take a few deep belly breaths. It sounds overly simple but works like magic.
My nondiabetic 7-year-old and I both use this trick whenever we feel stress coming on. He even reminds me. Whenever he sees me start to stress, he says, “Mommy, take a breath.” And it works every time. Even better, it’s absolutely free.
Massage is another self-care tool that may help with type 2 diabetes management. In fact, the first time I visited my current massage therapist, she warned me massage could work too well and cause hypoglycemia for some people with diabetes. Thus, she encouraged me to always check my blood sugar post-massage.
In addition to lowering glucose levels, the benefits of massage for diabetes include improving neuropathy, a complication of diabetes, and relieving stress.
But this is another self-care modality that can be cost-prohibitive. The price of an average massage is $100, and that doesn’t even include the tip.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to get a free massage, but I’ve saved money on this tool by visiting a local massage school. Massage students need bodies to practice on before they can earn their certifications, and because their students aren’t yet certified, massage schools offer drastically reduced prices for this service.
Don’t worry that you’ll get a subpar massage. Students must thoroughly train to earn their certifications, and instructors frequently supervise them. I’ve never been unhappy with a student massage.
If you’re interested in trying other modalities to see how they impact your blood sugar, such as acupuncture, you can also get sessions with acupuncture students for reduced prices. I’ve done this as well.
If you have no money to spend on bodywork, you still have options. One is to take more hot baths.
Research has uncovered that taking a hot bath, like a soak in a hot tub or time spent in a sauna, may reduce cardiovascular risk factors in people with diabetes. So as long as you have a bathtub, you can still reap the benefits of one type of bodywork.
Managing diabetes can involve a lot of moving parts. Sometimes the smallest lifestyle changes can make a huge impact. But often, the biggest impact comes from doing many things in combination, like eating a healthy diet, exercising, and finding ways to manage stress.
If you have a tight budget, diabetes self-care can feel out of range. I know this firsthand. Fortunately, self-care doesn’t need to involve spending much money — or even any at all. It just requires a few cost-saving tricks.
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