By NICK CHILES
It’s been exactly 20 months since I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It was a shocking night for me that feels like a blur in my memory because the diagnosis was so mind-numbing. I had always been an athlete, always felt like I was in control of my body—could even make it do some amazing things in my younger years. Though I had put on a few pounds, I was devastated that my body had so dramatically betrayed me.
I’m reminded of that diabetes diagnosis today by two pieces of information. The first is that today is my 47th birthday. The second, related piece of news is a study I came across today, saying that men who regularly exercise and lift weights can substantially reduce their chances of contracting diabetes—and those who already have the disease can significantly decrease their chances of dying from the disease with regular exercise and weight lifting.
These two pieces of info are significant because after my diabetes diagnosis, a weird thing happened to me: I became healthier. That may sound like an oxymoron—become diabetic and get healthier—but in my case it’s true. What had happened was, when that nurse came in to the hospital room and told me I was diabetic—which explained the sudden need to urinate every 15 minutes that had been terrorizing me for the previous week—it forced me to confront my health and my mortality in a way I never had.
I think because I had been an athlete all my life and had never gone more than a week without doing something to work up a sweat, I took way too many things for granted. I thought I would be able to eat what I wanted for the rest of my life, that I would always be able to play two hours of basketball without feeling the effects the next morning, that my body would always respond the way it had responded the previous four decades. Even though almost every single adult in my family above 50 is diabetic, I still didn’t think seriously about the disease striking me.
But diabetes gets your attention in a hurry—and quickly makes you reassess your diet and lifestyle. I began by taking insulin shots once a day, in addition to taking a pill called Metformin. Sticking that insulin needle into my leg every day was devastating to my psyche. More than anything that had happened or that the medical professionals had told me, that simple act made me feel like I was sick, like I would be a patient for the rest of my life. I was determined to do whatever I could to push my body so that I could escape the insulin needle.
The first step was to address my diet. This is a necessity because the diabetes medicine acts to lower your blood sugar since your body can no longer do it naturally by producing its own insulin. And once the medicine lowers your blood sugar, you have to be sure you eat something every two to three hours so that you can keep your blood sugar at a safe level. If you don’t eat, your sugar level gets too low and you feel horrible. If it gets too low, you can even pass out and go into diabetic shock and even a coma. So I knew I had to eat way more frequently than before.
But the question quickly arose—what do I eat every three hours that’s not going to make me fat? I did reading, I went to diabetes education classes, and I discovered that I was going to need to become a skilled snacker. I would have to find low calorie foods that I could eat frequently to keep my sugar up. I started to become a ravenous eater of nuts and fruit—two things that I tended previously to look on with disdain. In just a few weeks, something remarkable started happening—I began to lose weight. A lot of weight. When I had lost 10 pounds after several weeks, I was able to stop taking the insulin shots, which was a huge boost to my psyche. By six months later, I had lost a total of 30 pounds with my new snacking, grazing diet—in addition to cutting my portions in half at meals and exercising like a fiend at least three or four times a week.
I added weight training to my exercise routine at the suggestion of my excellent doctor. I made sure I got my 150 minutes of weekly exercised recommended by the medical establishment. And reading these studies today, it turns out I was onto something:
A study co-authored by Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Medicine, found that men who weight trained for a half-hour a day (2.5 hours a week) had a 34% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes than men who never hit the weight room. And additionally, those who combined weight lifting with a half-hour of aerobic activity each day — exercise included brisk walking and running — cut their risk by 59%, compared with sedentary men.
“We found that weight training is beneficial for diabetes independent of aerobic exercise. Each of them have independent effects, but the combination of both is most beneficial,” says Dr. Hu. “If someone doesn’t want to do aerobic exercise for various reasons, weight training can be an alternative.”
Increasing muscle mass by weight training helps boost the body’s metabolism, reduce insulin resistance and improve blood-sugar control. And, let me add, it also does wonderful things for the male body on an esthetic level. Things that girls like.
In a second study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, men who were already diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes found that even low-impact physical activity can extend their lives. Moderately active men with diabetes are 38% less likely to die of any cause and 49% less likely to die of heart disease than inactive men. The meta-analysis showed that men who engaged in the most physical activity overall had a 40% lower risk of death than their sedentary counterparts.
Those are huge numbers. Numbers that have to get your attention.
On my 47th birthday, staring into the face of 50, I am pleased to say that I feel like I am in control of my health and my body, regardless of my disease. In some ways, my diabetes has been a wake-up call, a way of yanking me by the collar and saying, Dude, you’re no longer a spring chicken. Time to grow up and take care of yourself.