Welcome to JDRF Bay Area’s blog, One on 1, a series of interviews with people who live with type 1 diabetes (T1D). Members of the community talk about how T1D affects them, how they manage it, and what they have accomplished despite it. Today we talk with Christel Oerum, the founder of Diabetes Strong. She is a Certified Personal Trainer specializing in diabetes. As someone living with T1D, Christel is particularly passionate about helping others with diabetes live active healthy lives. She’s a diabetes advocate, public speaker, and author of the popular diabetes book, Fit With Diabetes.
JDRF Bay Area: When were you diagnosed with T1D and what was it like for you then?
Christel: I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1997 when I was 19 years old. I knew nothing about diabetes at that point. My PCP might have explained it to me when he diagnosed me but if he did, I didn’t hear him. On my way home from that visit, all I remember was thinking that I’d been handed a death sentence.
My mom and I went to an endocrine unit a few days later and I started treatment. Here I met Lotte, my diabetes pediatric nurse and she was the one who drilled into me to never let diabetes stand in my way. So, I didn’t, and within a year of my diagnosis, I backpacked through India as I had been planning to do.
JDRF Bay Area: How has your outlook changed or evolved since then?
Christel: I only thought diabetes was a death sentence for a very short time and was fortunate to get the appropriate physical as well as mental care very quickly.
I also have a “roll with the punches” personality. That means that I accepted what I needed to do to manage my diabetes and never rebelled against it.
How I manage my diabetes has changed over the years. I manage my diabetes much tighter now and use both a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) as well as a smartpen (insulin pen with an associated app that helps me calculate my doses and automatically keeps track of my active insulin on board (IOB)). The tighter management is probably both due to understanding the condition better as well as having access to better technology.
JDRF Bay Area: Which came first, your passion for fitness or your diagnosis?
Christel: I was born and raised in Denmark and that’s where I was diagnosed with diabetes. I did very little structured exercise back then, but living in Denmark meant that I was using my bicycle to get everywhere so I was active daily. Over the years in Denmark, I did different types of exercise off and on and did take up boxing for about 1-2 years.
My passion for fitness didn’t come until later in life and was not related to my diabetes. Very few things that I do are driven by my diabetes, it’s more about what I enjoy and want to do with my life.
I moved to Santa Monica, CA with my husband in 2011 and found myself deeply fascinated by the fitness level of people living here. And that’s what really put a fire under me and ignited my passion for resistance training. I joined Gold’s Gym in Venice, CA and the rest is history.
JDRF Bay Area: What advice would you give someone who has T1D and wants to start a fitness routine?
Christel: Start with finding an activity that you enjoy. Maybe you want to take group classes, lift weights by yourself or with a lifting buddy, or maybe you’re more into other types of exercise. And that’s great, just explore different things and find what gives you joy.
Then learn the basics about exercise and diabetes, such as which types of exercise will generally make blood sugars drop and which can make them increase and use that information. This can take a little time, but if you’re structured and patient, you can find your formula for how to adjust your carbohydrates and insulin to have your blood sugar stay in range during and after exercise.
And regardless, always be safe when exercising, bring your emergency glucose (juice or glucose tablets), your meter or CGM receiver, and pay extra attention to your blood sugars.
JDRF Bay Area: Besides physical health benefits, what is the most positive effect that fitness has on your life?
Christel: My exercise routine is my “me time”. I often describe my trip to the gym as a trip to the playground. Currently, gyms are still closed in Santa Monica due to COVID-19 but I’ve found ways to continue doing resistance training at home.
I schedule an hour each day for movement, whether that’s for a hike, lifting some weights, or doing a dance class. That’s my one hour where I close the world out and just focus on moving my body. So you can call it my meditative time.
Aside from how good it makes me feel to move, exercise makes me feel empowered, strong, and centered.
JDRF Bay Area: Do you have a mantra that carries you through the day?
Christel: I still carry what my diabetes nurse Lotte told me with me every day, and I still believe it: “There’s nothing I can’t do with diabetes”
JDRF Bay Area: What would a cure mean to you?
Christel: I know that for a lot of people living with diabetes, it’s a much larger challenge than it is for me. And I can only imagine how challenging it must be to manage your child’s diabetes.
So a cure for me would mean that no more generations have to grow up living with the stress (mental and monetary) of managing their blood sugars.