Everyone diagnosed with diabetes has the same choice to make, according to Sheri R. Colberg-Ochs, PhD, FACSM, recipient of this year’s Outstanding Educator in Diabetes Award. You can let diabetes rule your life, or you can focus on life.
“Live first and be a diabetic second,” Dr. Colberg-Ochs advised during her award lecture Saturday morning at the Scientific Sessions. “You can’t ignore diabetes, but live your life the way you want to, not the way your disease wants.”
Dr. Colberg-Ochs, Professor Emeritus at Old Dominion University, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes nearly 50 years ago when she was four and a half years old. The disease didn’t stop her from having three children, becoming the first woman to manage a PAC-10 football team, or from becoming a certified scuba diver in her 20s despite being kicked out of class by the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) because she had diabetes.
“At this point in life, it’s Sheri 1, NAUI 0,” she said. “Yes, I’ve had diabetes most of my life. And no, I haven’t let diabetes stop me from doing anything—except eating Froot Loops®. The worst part about getting diabetes was giving up my favorite sugary breakfast cereal.”
Dr. Colberg-Ochs has also written 10 books on diabetes and exercise, authored about 275 articles, and created the ADA’s first physical fitness department. She credits her grandmother, who had type 2 diabetes, with her positive attitude.
“I was my grandmother’s exercise and weight loss coach when I was 12, which showed me that you really can make a difference,” she said. “After my grandmother had a stroke and spent the last five years of her life in bed with multiple amputations and unable to communicate, I decided that living without quality of life wasn’t what I wanted.”
At 24, Dr. Colberg-Ochs had a sudden onset of diabetic retinopathy and nearly lost her vision.
“I got my PhD in exercise physiology in 1992 and took my biochem exam even though I could only see out of one eye, and that one had huge black clouds floating around. I still managed to get a B+ on the exam,” she said.
Dr. Colberg-Ochs began working in diabetes education after finishing the PhD program, then started writing books on diabetes and healthy living in 2000. The titles are familiar to many in the field: The Diabetic Athlete, Diabetes-Free Kids, The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan, 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People With Diabetes, The Science of Staying Young, Diabetic Athlete’s Handbook, Exercise and Diabetes, and The Diabetes Breakthrough.
Her research into exercise physiology and diabetes, and interviews with people living with diabetes turned up a long list of secrets. Everyone she interviewed for her books had a different set of secrets that kept them going, she said, but they clustered into eight distinct categories: emotional, knowledge, control, diet, exercise, medication and technology, support, and having a life outside diabetes or any other chronic condition.
“I wanted to empower people to live longer, healthier, happier lives,” she said. “The secrets to living with diabetes are the same as living without diabetes—you live first, things like diabetes come second. Keep a positive attitude and sense of humor, lose the stress and the guilt, and set goals for yourself.”
Exercise secrets aren’t really secret, Dr. Colberg-Ochs noted. Everyone should get at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a week as well as two or three sessions of weight and resistance training. Live an active, strenuous life, she advised. Faced with the choice of taking the stairs or an escalator, take the stairs. Control your weight. And above all, exercise.
“You can erase a lot of your insulin mistakes with exercise,” Dr. Colberg-Ochs said. “Exercise usually lowers blood glucose levels, and vigorous exercise lowers stress levels.”
Women with diabetes used to be counseled against having children, she noted, but that advice doesn’t have to apply today.
“You can give birth to a healthy kid, but it’s a lot more work than normal,” she said. “I managed my glucose extremely well to give my sons the best possible start in life. When you think about it, the secrets of living long and well are the same with or without diabetes.”