Walking to Lose Weight With Diabetes

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I recently invited a friend to use the treadmill in my garage on her way home from work around 4 p.m. She said yes and was determined to make exercise a more regular part of life. She especially wanted to lose weight.

When she showed up for her first day on the treadmill, I was surprised when she looked at me and said, “Okay, but I’m not ready to start jogging on it yet, okay? Don’t make me run yet.”

“Well...sure...you don’t ever need to jog or run on it. You can walk,” I assured her. I suddenly realized she thought my plan all along was to make her run, run, run on my treadmill while I screamed at her like Jillian Michaels from The Biggest Loser.

“Oh...I don’t have to jog or run?” she asked.

“Nope...never. I was never going to suggest you run. Walking is awesome exercise and great for losing weight.”

In fact, when it comes to burning body fat, walking is actually far more effective than running.

Let’s take a closer look at the science of walking versus running.

Why Walking Burns More Body Fat Than Jogging

There are a few reasons why walking actually burns more body fat and can be a better choice for a large majority of people who want to make exercise a bigger part of your life.

Heart Rate Level Makes a Difference

The first thing to understand is that just because running makes your heart rate higher than walking doesn’t mean you’re burning more body fat.

Walking and jogging are both cardio (or aerobic exercise) because your heart rate is elevated for an extended duration of time and stays elevated for that entire workout.

You start walking or jogging, and for the entire 30 or 60 minutes of that exercise, your heart rate stays elevated. (Other types of aerobic exercise: swimming, rollerblading, Elliptical, Stairmaster.)

Sprinting, on the other hand, is a form of running that is anaerobic because you run a sprint, then rest, then sprint again, and so on. This causes your heart rate to go up very high ⬆️⬆️ and down ⬇️⬇️, then up and down again. 

Another aspect of anaerobic exercise is that your heart rate is generally going up to a rate that you couldn’t sustain for more than a few minutes at most, whereas straightforward aerobic exercise involves an increased heart rate level you could maintain for 30 minutes or longer. (Other types of anaerobic exercise: weight-training, spinning intervals, HIIT, Crossfit.)

What About Your Heart Rate During a Walk?

Do jogging and running burn more calories because your body is working harder and your heart rate is much higher? Sure, but burning calories and burning body fat are not the same.

When your heart rate starts making its way over 130 bpm (beats per minute) and eventually up over 140 bpm during jogging or running, you are going to burn the glucose in your bloodstream and the calories you just ate first, and then you’ll even burn some muscle!

You read that right: nowhere on that list is body fat.

When your heart rate is that high for an extended period of time, you simply aren’t burning fat for fuel because your body can’t cycle oxygen to your fat cells quickly enough to use that fat for fuel.

*(Special note: if you perform cardio exercise during a fasted state, you’ll definitely burn more body fat and prevent low blood sugars!)

Walking Is Your Best Friend for Fat Loss

When you’re walking at a brisk pace (or even a lazy, slow pace), your heart rate is generally going to be between somewhere 90-130 bpm.

You might see it get up to 140 bpm if you’re adding intervals of hills in there, but that’s okay because your heart rate isn’t going to be over 140 for an extended period of time!

During a walk -- especially when you ensure that you haven’t just taken a bolus of insulin -- your body is going to burn fat primarily for fuel.

What about low blood sugars during walks? Yes, that can happen (and you can prevent it, bear with me), but that’s because you’re living in a body that doesn’t manage its own insulin and glycogen properly.

How to prevent low blood sugars during walking:

  • Time your walks for a fasted state when you have not eaten or bolused insulin in more than 3 hours, when your blood sugar is in a healthy and safe range.
  • If you do need to take a correction dose of insulin within the two hours before you plan to go for a walk, reduce that correction dose down to ½ or even ⅓ of your usual correction.
  • Try timing your walk for first thing in the morning with an in-range blood sugar (you can still drink black coffee or plain tea, no milk or sugar added) OR after work but before dinner so you haven’t eaten and taken fast-acting insulin since lunch or an afternoon snack.
  • If you do need to walk mid-day (like during your lunch-break) try to walk before you eat lunch, so it’s at least been 3 hours since taking insulin for breakfast.
  • Always exercise with a source of fast-acting carbs in your pocket in case you do go low: glucose tabs, pixie stix, smarties, jelly beans, fruit snacks, etc.
  • Take good notes! Test your blood sugar often! Try to create consistency.
  • Work with One Drop's coaches to learn more about diabetes management during exercise!

Other Benefits of Walking

You can walk longer than you can run

“There’s something to be said for the amount of time you’d spend walking vs. running. You’ll get a lot of the same benefits from walking and running, but running condenses the amount of time you’ll be able to spend doing it,” explains Rachel Head, CDE and One Drop Diabetes Coach.

Walking is gentler on your joints

“Walking is also much lower impact, so it’s easier on the joints and your muscles, including your heart muscles,” says Head.

She also explains that, for those who haven’t been exercising regularly or for anyone diagnosed with any type of heart condition or blood pressure issues, walking is a great choice -- and you’ll reap so many of the benefits similar to running without the stress on your body.

Rachel continues, “If you’re just getting started in exercise, you don’t want to start overtaxing your joints and your muscles, walking is a great way to build that foundation of strength, and you do not need to ever escalate to running." 

What if walking is too much for your body’s joints?

“If your joints can’t handle walking, that’s okay! Choose something that helps take the weight off of those joints, like swimming,” explains Head. “You can also try machines that eliminate any real impact on your joints like the elliptical, a stationary bike, and pedal pushers that sit in front of the couch.”

Walking doesn’t make you hungry like running

The intensity of running can really stimulate your appetite, much like other types of exercise, including Crossfit, weightlifting, and spinning. While you’ve probably read how great lifting weights is for your metabolism, it definitely increases your hunger, too.

Walking, on the other hand, doesn’t have nearly as much impact on your appetite which means it’s easier to burn calories without having to resist the urge to eat all the calories you just burned!

Use the “Talk Test” to Determine the Right Intensity

“A lot of people aren’t really aware of where their fitness level plays into the type of exercise they choose,” explains Head. “I really like the 'talk test,' which means if you can’t speak a sentence without gasping for breath, you’re probably pushing yourself too hard.”

You can also increase the intensity of walking without ever running by holding a couple of 3 lb. dumbbells in your hands, wearing a backpack with a few books in it for weight, using hills for short period of intensity, or speed-walking for short intervals followed by walking at a more comfortable pace, allowing your heart rate to go up and then come down.

How Many Steps Should You Aim For?

You’ve probably heard friends talking about hitting their “steps goal” of 10,000 steps a day, and while that’s an awesome goal, it might not be the right goal for someone who is just starting out.

“5,000 steps might be more realistic for someone who is just starting out,” says Head. If you’ve been quite inactive for a long time, trying to hit 10,000 steps could easily lead to injury in the tendons and muscles of your feet, putting you back on the couch while it heals.

Think about what’s realistic for you based on your starting point, and give your time to gradually improve while gradually challenging your body appropriately.

In the end, you’ve just gotta get up and move. And remember, you’re not “tired” after sitting at a desk all day at work, your body is actually begging for some movement!

Get moving and you’ll find you get more energy at the same time, too!

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Ginger Vieira
Jan 30, 2020

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