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5 Tips to put you back in the race

older woman checking her heart rate

You don’t have to be sidelined by a heart condition or diabetes

Living with a heart condition or diabetes doesn’t have to be limiting, especially when it comes to exercise.

“Activity is very important for maintaining not just cardiovascular health, but overall health,” says Rex Liu, MD, a PeaceHealth cardiologist in Bellingham. With just a few exceptions, Dr. Liu says, no longer will there be a recommendation of strict bed rest or no activities for people with a heart condition. 

Troy Dillard, MD, a PeaceHealth endocrinologist in Bellingham, recommends 150 minutes of weekly exercise for people with diabetes. “This can be done in different chunks of time,” says Dr. Dillard, “but we really encourage 150 minutes of exercise per week.”

But what if you dream of doing more?

Training for a 5K (3.2 miles) or even a marathon is not out of the question for people living with diabetes or a heart condition.

Dr. Dillard and Dr. Liu offer the following five tips for people with long-distance running goals.

1. Touch base with your doctor. 

woman and man jogging outsideFor patients with diabetes, Dr. Dillard says, higher levels of exercise combined with certain medications can cause low blood sugar. “That’s why it's really important to get clearance from your doctor for any new and vigorous exercise program,” he adds.

Dr. Liu advises people with a heart condition to get the okay from their cardiologist before stepping up to the starting line. “Make sure whatever condition you have is appropriately treated and is stable before starting an exercise program,” says Dr. Liu.

2. Start slow.

A common mistake – no matter your health – is doing too much, too soon. “If you push yourself too hard and too fast, you can increase your risk for injury,” says Dr. Dillard. “It's best to increase your miles slowly.” Dr. Liu suggests training incrementally. “There is no need to ‘push through it,’” he says. “Slowly build and one day you will get there.”two men stretching for a run

3. Don’t rely on gadgets – listen to your body.

Many technologies on the market monitor a variety of health measures and conditions. These might be great tools to keep your health in check, but you know your body best – so listen carefully to how your body is feeling.

Heart rate monitors.

“Heart rate monitors are useful to help maintain an appropriate level of heart rate,” says Dr. Liu. “You don't want your heart rate to go too high or too low. You want to be in that sweet zone.”

man catches his breath after runningBut, in terms of overall health, heart rate is just one measurement. It doesn't give a complete picture. “The last thing I want is for someone to be focused solely on just one parameter and ignore everything else,” Dr. Liu says.

Talk to your doctor if you experience any of the following signs of stress on the body:

  • Dizziness
  • Pain or flutter sensations
  • Shortness of breath early in your exertional time

Blood sugar monitors.

Some people with diabetes have access to a continuous glucose monitor. This piece of equipment can offer an extra measure of safety, notifying its user to low blood sugar levels. But, says Dr. Dillard, a continuous glucose monitor isn’t a necessity for people aiming to run long distances.  

4. Maintain proper hydration and consider your diet.

Good hydration is especially important for people with diabetes or a heart condition. “Many heart patients are on water pills or diuretics to maintain an appropriate balance of fluids,” says Dr. Liu. “During exercise you are sweating more and losing fluids, so you want to make sure you maintain hydration.”

Hydration is also essential for maintaining blood sugar levels, and so is carbohydrate intake. Before strenuous, long exercise, it is important to get enough carbohydrates. This is especially true for someone taking medications, like insulin, that can cause low blood sugar.woman drinking water during exercise

“People with Type 1 diabetes on insulin need to be extra attentive prior to vigorous or prolonged exercise,” Dr. Dillard says. Take along some type of sugar or carbohydrate which can provide energy on long runs. Whether its glucose tablets or glucose gel, it's important to have something on hand during the run, in case you develop symptoms of low blood sugar.

Work with your doctor to develop a sugar or carbohydrate regiment that will work best for you.

5. Stay focused on your goal but be honest with yourself.

The bottom line: A heart condition or diabetes diagnosis does not ban you from running long distances.  

“Once you are adequately treated, very rarely would we say 'no, no, no you should not be doing this,’” says Dr. Liu. “We encourage patients to be as active as possible, listening to their bodies and not trying to overachieve.

“I can't emphasize this enough: Be very honest with yourself,” says Dr. Liu. “If you are trying to run a 5K and you are only able to do two, just do two and walk the rest.”

Regardless of your abilities, don’t give up on your dreams. Slow and steady wins the race.