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Celebrating Strong Women Living With Diabetes

Published: 10/23/23 5:50 pm
By Lauren Plunkett

Female bodybuilderEvelyn Oberdorfer has lived with type 1 diabetes since 1968. As someone who “never wants to be outdone by diabetes,” Oberdorfer lives an active lifestyle as a bodybuilder and half-marathon runner while inspiring others to find their community. 

Evelyn Oberdorfer’s resilience comes from her personal experience through the highs and lows of managing diabetes from a young age. Now age 65, her unbeatable attitude matches her strength as a bodybuilder and endurance as a half-marathon runner. 

On top of that, she’s done it all with a busy career and navigating type 1 diabetes. Today, she maintains her activity level and enjoys life by honoring the lessons she’s learned since her diagnosis 55 years ago.

Lauren Plunkett: Tell us about yourself and the activities you do to maintain your health. 

Evelyn Oberdorfer: My home is on a lake in Minnesota where I sail and run the trails. I am an avid gardener and worked as a personal trainer. In the past, I managed multiple careers as a paralegal, national fitness educator, and bodybuilder.  

I continue to train as a competitive athlete and recently started working with a running coach. Faith, family and friends, exercise, nutrition, volunteering, and traveling all give me great joy. I live in Italy six months out of the year and love talking with locals about living healthy with diabetes.    

Plunkett: When were you diagnosed and what were those early years like?

Oberdorfer: At 10 years old, I lost 10 pounds in a matter of three days. After falling asleep on the stairs and drinking gallons of sugary lemonade, my mom took me to a hospital. Even though my breath smelled of acetone and I fell asleep on the doctor’s shoulder, we were sent home with penicillin and a sick note. 

My blood glucose and urine were not tested. In fact, at that time in 1968, only urine was tested to measure glucose. My symptoms of exhaustion were only getting worse and concerned that I would die, my mom called a different hospital to report my symptoms

Without hesitation, they urged her to drive me to the hospital immediately rather than wait for an ambulance. To make matters even more stressful, minutes later we got a flat tire. From the side of the highway, my mom flagged down a passing driver who stopped to help us. Soon, we were back on the road and speeding towards the hospital.  

The emergency department was expecting us and I was admitted as soon as we arrived. Fortunately, my physician was well-trained in type 1 diabetes and recognized the symptoms right away. It was confirmed that my glucose was incredibly high and I would need to start on insulin. Staff monitored me around the clock for the next several days with concern that I would lapse into a coma even as my blood glucose lowered. 

Over the next week, my parents and I began to learn about insulin, diet, and exercise. It was a challenging time to be diagnosed: the manual labor required to test urine, dosing insulin for meals, and making adjustments for physical activity

The technology and type of insulin available at diagnosis today provide a completely different experience than how I initially learned to manage type 1 diabetes. I believe that we did the best we could with the resources available at the time, but there were so many variables to worry about – especially hypoglycemia. I was always fearful of complications growing up and experienced seizures from severe hypoglycemia. 

After graduating from the University of Minnesota, I moved to Los Angeles where managing type 1 diabetes became very hard emotionally while trying to settle into new surroundings. Not long after the move, I was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from trauma in my childhood that was unrelated to diabetes. There was a long road of healing ahead for my mental health and I really wanted to get my diabetes back on track.      

Plunkett: Was there a turning point in your health that caused you to level up and focus? 

Oberdorfer: Working through PTSD could make my diabetes management so overwhelming that I would find myself having a dangerous episode. I would ask myself, “How can I do one more thing when diabetes triggers my most horrific memories?”  

Trying to manage both conditions resulted in overeating and weight gain, so I started going to a gym. I found a community of friends with the same goals and joined a running group. This is when I realized how much I needed exercise and friends who helped me better manage my diabetes and emotions. Eventually, I was certified as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer, then became a national educator for other fitness professionals.    

The Benefits of Exercise for Diabetes

Research on exercise for people with diabetes demonstrates overwhelmingly positive outcomes. Here are a few important benefits of physical activity if you have diabetes:

  • Reduced risk for heart disease

  • Healthy weight management

  • Increased insulin sensitivity

  • Lower risk of diabetes-related complications and other chronic diseases

  • Improved self-esteem and body image 

  • Friendship and community 

Remember to always be aware of your glucose values when starting exercise and keep fast-acting carbohydrates within reach. For more information about what to do before, during, and after exercising, check out Plunkett’s exercise protocol worksheet

Type 1 diabetes can still trigger bad memories for me. However, with over 40 years of therapy, exercise, and hard work, I’ve learned that it doesn’t help to compulsively look at my continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and pump data. I can take a day off from wearing devices and focus on self-care habits that soothe my emotions. 

Sorting and prioritizing tasks to feel less overwhelmed is a skill that I’ve developed as a result of therapy. And, starting an insulin pump gave me the most stress relief – I think it saved my life and my mind.

Plunkett: What healthy habits have you adopted to achieve optimal health? 

Oberdorfer: I transitioned to the Omnipod around 12 years ago and it was a life-saver. It simplified a complicated routine of multiple daily injections and decreased burnout from highs and lows. 

Daily management that had been mentally taxing became so much easier to live with. These days, I can focus more on my workouts, volunteering in the community, and encouraging others to seek mental health counseling. At 65 years old, I’ve never felt better physically or emotionally as I do today. 

Throughout the years of therapy for PTSD, I continued to prioritize my goal of living complication-free. I’ve completed 15 half marathons, earned three awards in the master’s category of physique bodybuilding, and have written accredited course material for the fitness industry. I have proven that I am not a victim; I am a warrior. And anyone with diabetes can be, too.       

Plunkett: What advice would you give to young women who may be struggling with type 1 diabetes?

Oberdorfer: Be a star and rise up. It’s never been easier to manage a chronic condition. You can be a spokesperson in your community by telling your story and showing others that you are not your disease. Help is out there. It took me years to find a professional who I aligned with and who could help me get to the next level. 

Health is a life-long task and you have the choice to feel good – don’t give up. Experience the world. Find happiness in a physical challenge. It can be anything: surfing, rock climbing, soccer, or bodybuilding. Whatever you do, prove to yourself that you are not limited by your condition.

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About the authors

Lauren Plunkett, RDN, CDCES specializes in nutrition and exercise for type 1 diabetes and plant-based nutrition for chronic disease and preventive health. She is a global health educator, public speaker,... Read the full bio »