Taking It in Stride

Many people think of diabetics as overweight and out of shape. Runners like Anne Ludwig are working - and sweating - hard to change that.

By Maureen Bogues

Anne Ludwig, a 46-year-old San Francisco office administrator, would peddle 30 miles for a hot fudge sundae.

Like many diabetics, she sees no reason for her disease to interfere with a perfectly good dessert. She says she'd rather have "one bite of the real thing" than a whole bowl full of sugar-free candies or cookies.

While most diabetics might not train for half-marathons or cycle across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge (and back) for the "Tour de Baskin Robbins," they could take inspiration from athletes like Ludwig and others, who exercise for the obvious reasons — to improve mental and physical health — plus to help balance those pesky sugar levels. A side benefit is the occasional indulgence in forbidden foods like ice cream, Snickers bars and cookies.

"I have to exercise to maintain good control of sugar levels. I'm lucky because I love to run, bicycle and cross-country ski. If I don’t exercise and take a day off, I feel it," Ludwig said.

The delicate balance

Diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic nearly 20 years ago, Ludwig said she has always been active, but that being diabetic motivates her to stay that way. She prefers bike races of up to about 60 miles and foot races ranging from 5K to half-marathons, and considers herself "athletic" but not "competitive."

Keeping track of sugar levels, however, requires constant vigilance. Ludwig checks her levels before and after every run or ride, and always carries some form of energy booster like Gu or small candies. She had to learn the hard way not to leave home without them.

"I once was running in Golden Gate Park and was three miles from home when I started having a reaction. I was pretty scared," Ludwig said. She flagged down a woman with a child in a stroller, correctly guessing that the mom might possess a sugary treat. The woman turned out to be a nurse and understood immediately.

"She gave me a Hostess double-chocolate cake. It was the best!" Ludwig said.

The need for speed

Like most diabetics, Ludwig said she has learned "by trial and error" what works in terms of balancing insulin, food and exercise. Whether a person wants to train for a half-marathon or take a stroll in the park, the first step out the door is always the hardest. Ludwig advises those in need of inspiration to watch the finish line of any local race.

"You'd be surprised at the people crossing the finish line," she said. "TV doesn't show the average runner when they cover the race. They only show the winners, and there aren't very many of those."

People of all shapes and sizes compete in 5K, even 10K walks and races; very few are elite athletes.

Like clockwork

Even moderate exercise like walking or jogging helps diabetics because it enables the body to use insulin more efficiently. It takes some glucose out of the blood to use for energy during and after exercise, and it helps delay or stop cardiovascular disease, which, according to the American Diabetes Association, is the leading killer of people with diabetes.

Simply put, exercise is "the best friend" of diabetics, said Dr. David G. Marrero, director of training for the Diabetic Research and Training Center at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Dr. Marrero, a Type 1 diabetic himself, is a former Big 10 football player who enjoys running, cycling and working out. He also has a 6th-degree Black Belt in karate.

"I personally have a very free diet because I use exercise to manipulate it," he said.

Evidence now suggests that regular exercise can help prevent Type 2 "adult onset" diabetes that is frequently linked with obesity.

Everybody's doing it

Whether a person already has the disease or is considered at high risk, it is never too late to start a fitness program and there are many resources to help. One such group is the Phoenix-based International Diabetic Athletic Association (IDAA), founded in 1985 by marathoner Paula Harper, who wanted to help athletes like herself manage the food, exercise and insulin needed for intense levels of activity.

The grassroots organization has 2,000 members worldwide, ranging from elite athletes to moderately active people. It links people with similar interests and dispenses information as well as hard-won advice.

"It's trial and error. If they're stuck, they'll call," said IDAA Board Member Ann Donohue. "We network with people who have all kinds of tricks and incredibly valuable information — some of it the health professionals don't even have."

Dr. Marrero, also an IDAA board member, concurs.

"We see all walks of life, all capabilities represented. It's very inspirational," he said.

The stories they tell — of bicycling across America, climbing Mt. Everest or in the case of one blind man, participating in a downhill ski tournament — lay to rest any fears one might have about diabetes impeding physical activity.

Before you grab the handlebars and start spinning up Mt. Everest, it is important for anyone with diabetes to consult their physicians and get a complete physical exam. After that, it's all uphill.

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