Pioneer Woman of Diabetes And Exercise – MoToMove #2

Have you ever wondered what it takes to cross the finish line in a marathon or shoot that seamless 3-point basket or climb to the summit of Mt. Everest? How does a person with diabetes find such inspiration and once they find it how do they keep the fire stoked? 

Have you ever wondered what it takes to cross the finish line in a marathon or shoot that seamless 3-point basket or climb to the summit of Mt. Everest?  How does a person with diabetes find such inspiration and once they find it how do they keep the fire stoked?  Last column we talked a little about Paula Harper.  Now let’s look for the secrets that got her to run 35 marathons, many daredevil hikes and multi century bike races among other athletic feats.  Her story has no doubt inspired many.  Once you hear it chances are that you, too, will be motivated to move.

How It All Began

Paula Harper was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age twenty-nine, over forty years ago.   At the time, she had three young children, ages three months, a year and a half and three years old.  Soon after diagnosis, she signed up for a women’s sports class which required running a mile to warm up as part of the class.  That was a brutal wake-up call as to how out of shape she was at the time.  She became determined to start training and run that one mile. Her first goal was to run once around a park near her house.  That was almost a half-mile. Gradually she increased her distance and gained a little enthusiasm as she found she could meet the goal she set for herself. After a few weeks of running in circles she took off to a more interesting view on the nearby canal banks. Her plan was to run early in the morning before her children woke up and their day started.

It wasn’t long before Paula was hooked and running became a big part of her life. Her husband Lew was very supportive and accommodating which was an important factor. At the time Paula was in school full time in an emergency room nurse practitioner program, worked part time as an emergency room nurse at the Arizona Health Plant and had three active little ones to care for at home.  With such a busy schedule taking time for herself was her last priority.   But she found that when she ran it became her own time.  Running did great things for her self-esteem.  Paula found that accomplishing goals and the discovery that running also helped with her diabetes management and gave her an added sense of pride.  Being active on a daily basis lessened her insulin requirements.  After a few months Paula began to enter local races and got her speed and endurance up.  A year later she felt ready to try a marathon.

The family had a huddle about this and decided to make it a special event, so off they all went to Hawaii in December 1977. There was an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and compassion that day.  Finishing the race gave Paula a high she had never before experienced. As runners crossed the finish line they were met with big hugs and Hawaiian seed leis were placed around their necks. To top it all Paula was proud that she was able to balance food and insulin throughout the run.  There were no high tech glucose meters, or continuous glucose monitors (CGM’s) available in 1977 and carb counting was mostly guesswork. Paula had a strong feeling, almost a dream, about something else that day.  She thought about how wonderful it would be to have a group of diabetic athletes running together.  She was determined to make this dream a reality.

Every day of the year in Phoenix, Arizona is ideal for outdoor exercise as long as you do it early in the morning. And since Paula was an early riser she got into a habit of climbing a popular trail in the city called Piestewa Peak (formerly called Squaw Peak.  It is a 1.2 mile hike to the summit. She would leave home in darkness geared up in hiking boots and a flash light to check her blood sugar along the way. She hiked this trail most days of the week for twelve years.  Over time, it became a social event as she got to know other early bird hikers she met along the way.  She’d get back home by 6:00 a.m. just as the sun began to pop up in the desert sky and the children were waking up.

Camelback Mountain was another favorite hike, especially from the backside.  Over the years Paula’s enjoyment of hiking has taken her to hike the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, four times, and on several European hikes including a challenging Swiss Alps trek. She continues to hike the hills around Tucson, Arizona where she now lives.  In the past she lived in Nashville, Tennessee for several years and competed in the annual Country Music Marathon. Paula has completed thirty-five marathon races since that first one in 1977 in Hawaii.  She has also finished five El Tour de Tucson bike races of one hundred plus mile distances. 


Since founding IDAA/DESA nearly thirty years ago (In the late 1990’s IDAA changed its name to DESA: Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association to be more inclusive for all people with diabetes who sought out support for their diabetes and physical activity), Paula Harper has been fully committed to her belief that sports and exercise is something every person with diabetes should practice daily as a powerful instrument in managing diabetes.  Paula has received recognition and honors for her work that include:

  • 1985:  established (along with Clifton Bogardus, MD)  the American Diabetes Association Professional Council on Exercise and subsequently served as Chair 1997-1998
  • 1992:  Distinguished Service in Diabetes Award by Squibb-Novo
  • 2000:  Josiah Kirby Lilly Sr. Award by the American Diabetes Association for persons and/or organizations making outstanding contributions to the lives of person with diabetes, impacting the understanding of diabetes, the ability to improve healthcare and the quality of life for individuals and families.

Paula Harper’s story is surely amazing and inspirational yet is real and down to earth.  Now in her seventies Paula continues to be a role model and inspiration or all those living with diabetes.  In August of 2013 at the Insulindependence North American Conference in San Diego for diabetic athletes, Paula was recognized as the inspirational founder of the first organization devoted to the mission of educating people of all ages with diabetes and their health care providers about the role of exe rise in enhancing health and to create opportunities for those with diabetes to participate in a broad range of exercise including health-care exercise, recreational sports extreme sports and everyday athletic activities. 

As she made her way to the podium the entire audience stood up to give rousing applause to honor the legacy of Paula Harper, the remarkable pioneer woman of diabetes and exercise.


Walk With Your Hips
That’s right, walk with your hips.  The next time you go out for a brisk walk pay mind to how you are walking __ back should be straight, arms swinging freely at your sides, knees relaxed, entire body relaxed and loose __ and of course, wear comfortable shoes with sturdy support The tip to a good walk is to lead with your hips, thrusting them slightly forward as you lengthen your stride.  This is a terrific stretch for the entire hip girdle.  It bumps up the aerobic and circulatory benefits of the walk and puts more bounce into the leg muscles.  At first it may seem like a lot to be aware of, but stay with the rhythm and soon it will become your Mo To Move walk.

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