Build up your body to knock down blood sugar

by Sar? N. Harrar

Lifting weights--whether you're hefting light dumbbells in your living room or using weight machines at the gym--can significantly reduce high blood sugar, research shows.

In a 6-month study of 36 people ages 60 to 80, Australian researchers found that those who ate a healthy diet and followed a weight lifting program saw blood sugar fall three times further than those who simply dieted. Plus, they lost body fat. Their 3-day-a-week program was quick and easy: Nine exercises that targeted the major muscles in the upper and lower body, with 8 to 10 repetitions of each exercise.

In another study by American researchers, overweight people with high blood sugar improved their glucose levels when they took part in a simple weight-training program. After 16 weeks, those who pumped iron had better blood sugar control than those who did not.

Resistance training helps cells throughout your body become more sensitive to insulin, the vital hormone needed for glucose to enter cells. But that's not all, since other compounds can prompt the same response. One, called Glut-4, binds to the cell membrane and then helps glucose into muscle cells. People with high blood sugar have suboptimal levels of glucose transporters like Glut-4. Weight training can increase their number, helping muscles absorb sugar and remove sugar from the blood.

Research also shows that strength training promotes heart health in people with high blood sugar. This is an important benefit because high blood sugar can quadruple the risk of heart disease.

You're never too old to start pumping iron. Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston and author of Strong Women Stay Slim and Strong Women Stay Young, has worked with women in their 90s.

Moreover, we lose muscle with age, and rebuilding it with weight training is critical for almost everyone over 35. All it takes is two or three at-home sessions a week. You can even break up the sessions into smaller workouts. Best of all, you will see dramatic changes in your body in about a month, and most women get a big energy boost right away. Here's how to get started.

Strength Training 101
Strength training can involve using weights or your own body weight to challenge and build muscle. Here's a quick lesson to help you get the most from your workout.

Know the lingo.
The words rep and set are the jargon of gym junkies. One rep, or repetition, describes one complete exercise, so one pushup, for example, would be one rep. A set is a specific number of repetitions. Do two sets of 8 to 12 repetitions for each exercise. Start with 8 repetitions in each set. When you can easily do 12, you can add a little more weight.

Work out between meals.
Lifting right after a huge meal will make you feel uncomfortable; lifting on an empty stomach may make you light-headed. The optimal time to work out is midway between meals. Or have a light meal or snack an hour or so beforehand.

Warm up.
Take 5 to 10 minutes to walk briskly, do jumping jacks, or march or jog in place. If you do an aerobic workout in addition to resistance training, you can do the aerobics first, in place of a warmup.

Pick the right weight.
If you can't lift the weight in good form 8 times, it's too heavy. If you can easily lift the weight more than 12 times, it's too light. Pick one in between.

Tame the tension.
When we contract one muscle, we have a tendency to tense the others as well. During strength training, though, only the muscles you're working should contract, according to Nelson. Make sure that you're not clenching your teeth, furrowing your brow, or tensing your shoulders up around your ears.

Don't wait to exhale.
Strange as it may sound, many weight lifters literally hold their breath, which can cause their blood pressure to spike. Exhale on the exertion--when you lift the weight or do the crunch--and inhale as you lower the weight or return to the starting position.

Take it slow.
Fast, herky-jerky movements can cause injury. They can also cause you to use momentum, rather than muscle, to lift the weight. Slow, controlled movements are safer and take more effort, so you get more benefit. Each repetition should take about 6 seconds: 2 seconds to lift the weight, a 2-second pause, and then another 2 seconds to lower the weight.

Perfect your form.
Good form--doing an exercise in exactly the right way--helps you get the most benefit from lifting and prevents injury. To watch your lifting form, stand in front of a full-length mirror. Make sure that your wrists are straight, not bent backward or forward, and that you are doing the exercise precisely as it is shown.

Pay attention to posture.
Whether you're sitting or standing when you lift dumbbells, keep your back, neck, and head straight to prevent muscle strain and injury. Good posture doesn't mean standing stiffly; stand tall but relaxed. If you're seated to do the exercise, sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor.

Be kind to your joints.
Don't lock your elbows or knees when lifting weights. When you lock a joint, the joint bears the stress of the weight, not the muscle. To prevent joint pain, end the move just short of locking your knees or elbows.

Break between sets.
Take a 1- to 2-minute break after you complete each set to give your muscles a chance to recuperate and prepare for the next set. To save time, you can do an exercise that works another muscle group. You might alternate between leg and arm exercises, for example.

Finish with flexibility.
Lifting weights actually contracts and shortens your muscles, which makes them less flexible. Stretching after lifting restores their length and keeps them supple, which helps to prevent injury in the long run.

Take a day off.
Your muscles need at least a day to rest in between resistance-training sessions. It's actually during that time that your muscles get stronger. That's because lifting weights causes tiny tears in the muscle tissue. As your muscles repair that damage, they become stronger.

Work through soreness.
You'll probably feel a little sore for the first few weeks of a resistance-training program. Don't increase the amount of weight you're lifting until the soreness subsides, and even then, add no more than a pound per session. If the soreness is so bad that even everyday movement is painful, you may need to decrease the weight.

Mix up your routine.
After you've lifted weights consistently for a few weeks or months, you may hit a plateau. That's when you find that you can't seem to progress to the next level with heavier weights. This is a sign that your muscles have become used to your workout and need a new challenge to grow further. When you hit a plateau, try changing something in your routine. Alter the exercise slightly, try a completely different exercise to work the same muscle, or lift and lower the weight even more slowly. For example, take 4 seconds to lift the weight, a 2-second pause, and then 4 seconds to lower it.

Pay attention to pain.
Pain may be a sign that a muscle, tendon, or joint has been overworked or strained. If something doesn't feel right, stop. Rest a few days before trying your routine again.