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How I danced my way through diabetes

A diagnosis of diabetes can be life-altering, but it needn’t cause panic. A writer tells you how she managed the disease by doing something fun and enjoyable

Dancing is not just about shedding calories; it enhances positivity, determination, focus and confidence
Dancing is not just about shedding calories; it enhances positivity, determination, focus and confidence (istock)

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“274.” I will always remember that number. In January 2022, my husband and I decided to get a random health checkup, not having had one in ages. While not expecting perfect results, I was unprepared to find alarmingly elevated blood sugar levels. My fasting blood sugar was 274 (between 70 and 100 are normal/safe levels). I was shocked and deeply upset. I was only 41, and no one my age that I knew had serious health conditions. How could I have let this happen? I never had serious health issues, exercised regularly, ate healthy at home (but did enjoy junk food occasionally). I have a family history of diabetes, but it skipped my parents and landed on me. 

Considering I had known this, I blamed myself for being careless and not taking more rigorous precautions against diabetes. Doctor consultations, dietary modifications, medication, and daily blood sugar readings followed for the first few weeks. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. But being harsh on myself initially and believing I was responsible also meant I could change things. Diet and medication helped lower my blood sugar, which has been within safe levels for a year now, but I credit a daily practice in emotionally, mentally, and physically managing my condition. This is an account of how dancing helped me with diabetes.

I have danced regularly for years in dance classes and solo, learning different styles and choreographing my own. I started an experiment in 2021 to dance daily for at least five minutes, initially to practice hula hooping and shuffling, which I had started learning at the time, but also to see where this daily routine would take me. I documented this dance journal with snippets of daily learning and the completed routines on my social media pages. I was diagnosed five months into my journal. In that first week I was scared that anything I ate would spike my sugar levels and dealing with some initial medication I was prescribed, which made my sugar levels plunge erratically, leaving me weak and shivery. Despite wanting to wallow in self-pity in those early weeks, I stuck with my dance routine because it anchored me when everything felt topsy-turvy.

The stress gradually diminished after a week of careful eating, consistent workouts and medication brought my blood sugar down to 147. I also settled on a doctor who was encouraging of my efforts and along with twice-a-day medication and dietary modifications, emphasised daily exercise as essential. I danced in relief that evening, finally feeling that the situation was manageable and I could hopefully reverse it with time. Movement and exercise are important in regulating blood sugar. Along with yoga-based or dumbbell workouts (research showing strength training as beneficial in regulating blood sugar), I dance for at least five minutes every day, but it’s usually 30 minutes or more if learning harder choreography or techniques. Initially, it was the only time I did not think about diabetes; absorbed by the routine, variety, joy, and movement.

I incorporated other recommended movement, like post-meal slow walks for 30 minutes, which help lower blood sugar. Even on days I am unable to do a complete workout, I clock in my dance minutes. Finding an enjoyable, effective, and sustainable fitness routine is tough, but dance works for me. The variety and range of movement keeps it exciting. Squatting, lunging, and jumping in an energetic shuffling or hip-hop routine; stretching and balancing in a contemporary routine; or isolating and using muscles that I do not use routinely while hula hooping or practicing some samba.

I completed 365 days of dancing on July 13, 2022. It roughly coincided with one of my doctor visits. Each visit had shown great progress. “I can pretty much say you are now in the pre-diabetic category. You are managing your diabetes. That is not easy. And dancing daily is also not easy,” he said. “Also, don’t blame yourself. Genetics play a large part and you have history.” His words allowed me to be kinder to myself and feel less guilty.

Some weight loss is beneficial in reducing blood sugar levels, and over my year of dancing I lost 8 kg. Just focusing on my doctor’s advice and reading about sustainable long-term lifestyle and dietary changes helped me. I regularly checked on the glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) of my food; eating fewer, but not eliminating, carbohydrates, and monitoring portions. There are days when I just want to inhale a burger, fries, and ice cream, and occasionally I indulge, but for the most part I am careful. But every diabetic is impacted differently by various foods and finding your own balance, initially with the help of professionals, is recommended.

It is tiring to constantly think about your diet, but I do not let diabetes define or consume my life, having so much else to keep me busy and content. My day is filled with fulfilling work, great friends and family, and enjoyable pastimes, for all of which I am grateful. And there is no better reminder of this than my dance journal, which helped me see that if I have the focus, commitment, and determination for this daily practice, I could do the same for my health.

I continued past my 365-day target, and am currently on day 595 of an unbroken stretch of dancing because it is habit now. The exercise is great, but the positivity, determination, focus, and confidence dancing gives me is invaluable. Each day I dance, my body tells me I am healthy and mobile and I can never take that for granted. My sugar levels have been within the safe zone for a while, and a year after my diagnosis, my doctor has halved my medication. The emotional, mental, and physical support my daily dance routine provides is immeasurable.

I’ve been bombarded with numbers this past one year, but the ones that endure are a ‘5-6-7-8’.

Follow these accounts for regular, fun tutorials: 

SHUFFLE WITH AKANKSHA: Dancer Akanksha Singh creates short tutorials on shuffle dancing on Instagram and breakdowns of longer routines, including hit dance numbers like Natu. Natu, on her YouTube channel.

ESHNA KUTTY: Kutty sells hula hoops through her company Hoop Flo, and conducts online workshops, flow sessions in person, as well as online courses, which you can do at your own pace.

KUNDUDANCE: For House dance (a street dance style) tutorials and old-school hip-hop moves.

COST N’ MAYOR: While there are no tutorials on their Instagram page, this dancing couple does amazing choreography and provide inspiration with clean, innovative, entertaining routines.

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