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Journeys and opportunities: starting an exercise program

starting to exercise

I’m not going to lie to you! If you’re not active, then starting an exercise program is hard. So think of it as an awesome road trip: the journey to the destination will be the best part.


Nearly 50% of people with prediabetes will go on to develop type 2 diabetes. The long-term effects of diabetes, such as heart disease and nerve damage, may even begin during prediabetes. Diabetes is progressive in nature; once you have it, it cannot be cured. This sounds very doom and gloom. But the reality is that – whether you have prediabetes or diabetes – if you don’t face it now, you will likely have to deal with something much more serious later on. So please take this seriously. Thank you!

The important thing to remember about prediabetes is that it doesn’t always lead to diabetes. With healthy lifestyle changes — such as eating healthy foods, including physical activity in your daily routine and maintaining a healthy weight — you may be able to bring your blood sugar level back to normal. Family history and genetics plays a role in the development of prediabetes and the progression of diabetes. You can’t change that, so we’ll call that bad luck. Excess fat — especially abdominal fat — and inactivity also seem to be important factors in the development of prediabetes, as well as the progression of diabetes. We’ll call that ‘opportunity.’

Here’s how it works.

Belly fat and disease 
Scientists are still learning how substances secreted by abdominal fat cells harm the body. Recent research shows that these cells produce substances that can cause high blood pressure, increase insulin resistance, increase the risk of heart attacks and trigger low-level inflammation, which has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases such as cancer.

Physical inactivity

Inactivity contributes to insulin resistance. One study showed that physical inactivity ranked higher than smoking as a cause of heart disease in Australian women who were over the age of 30. Watching television for two hours per day, instead of pursuing something more active, can increase the chances of developing diabetes by 20%.


Skeletal muscles, the muscles that move your body, are your body’s biggest consumer of sugar. Working your muscles more often, and making them work harder, improves their ability to use insulin and absorb glucose. Your body’s cells become more sensitive to insulin, so less is needed. This puts less stress on your insulin-making cells. Also, activity can help promote weight loss, which means some abdominal fat loss, which decreases insulin resistance.

According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, studies have shown that by cutting calories, reducing fat intake and exercising, the number of study participants who progressed from prediabetes to diabetes was lowered by 58%. These same strategies will also help manage type 2 diabetes.


How much exercise is enough?

In the studies, the participants completed at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week, with no more than two days off in a row. This could be 30 minutes of brisk walking, 5 days a week.

People with very low fitness levels can start with lower amounts and intensities of activity. For example:

  • Start with five minutes daily for a week
  • Then increase the time to 10 minutes daily (or 5 minutes twice a day) for a week
  • Then aim for 15 minutes a day, and so on, gradually working up to the 150-minutes-per-week goal over six or more weeks

If you have been inactive for some time, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program that is more strenuous than brisk walking.

The good news is that multiple, shorter exercise sessions of at least 10 minutes each might be as useful as a single longer session of the same intensity. Every single minute of physical activity has health benefits.


How do I get started?

Most people don’t expect to be able to do things without practice. Did you learn to knit in a day without making mistakes? Think of toddlers learning to walk. There are a few tears, and some bumps and bruises along the way, but do they ever just give up and say (to themselves … they can’t really talk yet, right?) “This is too hard!” There’s no reason to expect that any element of healthy living will just happen without setbacks. Approach healthy living as a skill to improve. And approach it as well from a place of self-compassion.

Here are some tips to get you started. This is the ‘opportunity’ part.

Make it fun.

  • Find a workout partner. This is one of the most effective ways to be accountable and make your activity fun.
  • Join a team. Yes, there are teams for adults. Sometimes we’re called ‘Masters’ (even if we’re not very good).
  • If you feel you need a distraction, listen to music, a podcast, an audiobook or talk on your phone while you walk. You will be amazed how quickly time passes.
  • Try ‘exergaming.’ You can use a video game console to do many different activities. The University of Calgary actually has an Exergaming Research Centre. Exergaming has the potential to be a safe and effective tool for maintaining or improving fitness. There are so many different activities from which to choose, you’re sure to find something enjoyable.

Take baby steps (remember the toddler?). Beginning an exercise program can be very overwhelming – and even painful – if you aren’t careful.

  • If you hate to exercise, your first step is to get to a fitness level where you no longer hate to exercise. Don’t choose something too hard or unpleasant. Try not to do too much too soon. You don’t really feel the overdoing it part until a day or two later.
  • Even if you can handle more, don’t start with 30 minutes if it will make you miserable.
  • If you do 10 minutes and think, “That was easy,” then you’re on your way. The idea is to make it repeatable.
  • No matter how good you feel when you return to an activity after an absence, you should never start out with the same intensity and duration as you did in the past.
  • Don’t give up if you don’t immediately feel ‘energized.’ If your body isn’t used to the added physical stress of exercise, you may feel fatigued and even drained, especially if you overdo it. Don’t get discouraged; it’s natural to feel this way until your body adapts.
  • If the idea of starting small stresses you out, remember there is no point in doing one hour today and then not doing it ever again.
  • Listen to your body. Stop if it hurts. Speak to your doctor if you are very short of breath or have chest pain.

Good luck on your journey!

About Christie Hamilton

Christie Hamilton is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with more than 20 years of experience. She works at the Leadership Sinai Centre for Diabetes in Toronto where she helps people with type 1 & type 2 diabetes, as well as diabetes in pregnancy. Christie is a co-author of two diabetes self-learning manuals for the Canadian Diabetes Association, including a chapter about endurance training and type 1 diabetes. She has worked at several fitness centres as a personal trainer and fitness instructor, providing support and encouragement for participants. Christie has a passion for food and exercise and loves to share strategies to help others incorporate these into a healthy lifestyle.