Aerobic exercise improves blood circulation, lowers LDL cholesterol, and promotes efficient use of insulin in your body. Strength training improves insulin sensitivity in tissue and joint health, and leads to the building of what is called “core strength,” strengthening the body to resist illness and to mend from injury. The National Institutes of Health, Health Canada, and the American Diabetes Association are unanimous in advising 20 minute to 30 minute workouts of moderate intensity at least five times a week, stepped up to vigorous intensity at least two of those days, health permitting.
Jarring exercises often are avoided by older persons who’ve begun to feel bone or joint degeneration; these include running. racquet sports, and contact sports. For those experiencing neuropathy, continuous exertion in cold weather is also not advised. And while exercise has been shown to forestall cardiovascular complications, one experiencing these complications should be cautious in engaging in exercise that taxes the pulmonary system. So what about rowing for a low-impact aerobic and resistance training exercise?
Rowing has a long history of being a sport for people with diabetes. Sir Steve Redgrave, five-time U.K. Olympic gold medal oarsman, won his Sydney gold three years after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Canadian Chris Jarvis, who rowed for Northeastern in Boston, and has Type 1 diabetes, competed in the Canadian National Crew in Athens in 2004, and then won a gold at the 2007 Pan American Games. A community of rowers, some who’ve never climbed into a shell, has coalesced around the notion that rowing may well be the perfect exercise and ideal for diabetic health.
A short drive south from Type2Nation’s office is the Charles River, dividing Boston from Cambridge. Since 1965, this river has been home of the Head of the Charles Regatta. The HOCR is now the biggest multiple-class rowing event in the world. In 2015, 11,000 rowers representing 778 clubs, schools, or national athletic teams signed up to compete in 55 events over two days.
This is where I met Judy Geer, who, with her husband and brother in-law, helped found Concept2 (C2), a maker of oars and indoor rowing and nordic skiing equipment. Their carbon fiber oars are now in the hands of the world’s top rowers, who also use their rowing ergometers to maintain their competitive edge.
Judy’s husband, Dick Dreissigacker, is an engineer who rowed and coached college crew and rowed in the Munich Olympics in 1972; he got his brother Pete interested in the sport when they were in graduate school at Stanford. The brothers were training for the trials for the 1976 Montreal Games when they made their prototype oars, molding the resin in the oven in their apartment. Judy rowed in college, and on the 1976 and 1984 Olympic crews. Judy and Dick’s daughter Hannah is a 2014 Olympic biathlete. The family is behind the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, where there are rowing, running, and cross-country skiing camps.
The current incarnation of the C2 rowing ergometer employs an enclosed chain-driven turbo fan to present the resistance needed for strength training and an aerobic workout. The power for the rowing stroke comes from muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms, and, via a sliding roller seat, the legs. C2’s rowing ergometers are equipped with an electronic keypad display that allows a rower to record not only calories burned and energy applied, but to simulate speed through the water. A standard race distance, like the 2,000-meter straight line international course for sprint or side-by-side regattas, can be keyed in, as well as any variety of longer distances, such as the three-mile winding Head of the Charles course.
Geer says C2 has many fans who have diabetes.
“We have the testimonials from customers back at home who’ve lost pounds and gotten their blood sugar and bad cholesterol numbers down or reduced their meds,” says Geer.
Indoor rowers have written to the company with sentiments like, “My endocrinologist has reduced my insulin dosage twice in the past year”, “I’ve lost a little over 20 pounds,” and “I try to row 5,000 meters daily … rowing has helped me lose 35 pounds, get off blood pressure medication, and drop my blood sugar readings 30-40 points.”
This author, who has not been paid in any way to endorse C2, can also provide proof that indoor rowing works. Before ergometer rowing, I was at 220 pounds; after a year and a half, I’m leveling off at 183-186 pounds. My 17 ½-inch neck shirts have room for three fingers, and, fortunately, my dry cleaner employs a tailor who has sewn suspender buttons in four pair of pants for me.
Rowing is a calming, meditative act, well-suited to prepare for or decompress from a rough day, including, perhaps, a day when your doctor discusses your lab results with you. It might be worth a try, with C2 or another brand, if you are looking for a non-jarring exercise you can do year-round.
Please consult with a medical professional before making any change in your exercise level or diet.