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Woman fights diabetes through fitness, triathlon


By Art Martori -- East Valley Tribune

MESA, Ariz. (AP) - Michelle Reina-Long is like the majority of adults in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. She has Type 2 diabetes. But rather than use medication to treat her illness, Reina-Long started running.

The 35-year-old said that soon after she was diagnosed with diabetes 10 years ago, she decided to lose weight and exercise more to combat the disease, which afflicts 51 percent of Salt River residents over 30 years old, according to reservation statistics.

Three years ago, Reina-Long ran her first half-marathon.

Now, she's training for the 2007 Ironman Arizona Triathlon in May and said she plans to enter the Timex Triathlon in September. But she started with smaller goals.

''Right when I found out, I started watching my diet,'' she said.

Reina-Long said that after she lost 50 pounds, she found her diabetes symptoms hardly bothered her at all.

''When I found out, I didn't want to use insulin,'' she said. ''I saw what my grandmother went through.''

According to a 2003 American Medical Association report, by 1974 the incidence of diabetes among American Indians in some populations was four times greater than its occurrence among whites.

Dr. Lori Roust, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, said the occurrence of diabetes among Pima Indians was especially high.

''There is an ethnic basis for this,'' she said. ''The Pima Indians tend to have a greater problem with Type 2 diabetes, due in part because they evolved over time to develop genes that promote weight gain.''

Roust said white settlers brought technology to the area that eliminated the scarcity of food - and the necessity to store calories.

''This is a group of people that traditionally lived in a harsh environment,'' Roust said. ''These people who became effective at storing calories developed obesity. Obesity leads to Type 2 diabetes.''

Reina-Long's older sister, Rachel Seepie, also has Type 2 diabetes. Seepie, 35, works with her sister as a physical trainer at the fitness center. She said she also works to educate community members about diabetes.

Seepie said it was difficult for her and Reina-Long to watch their grandmother undergo kidney dialysis and eventually lose her battle with diabetes.

''My grandmother basically just gave up,'' Seepie said.

Seepie added that watching Reina-Long's progress made her realize that she could beat diabetes.

''She inspired me,'' Seepie said.

Reina-Long said she was determined not to succumb to diabetes. She started working nine years ago as a trainer at the fitness center on the reservation, first as a volunteer and five years ago as a full-time employee. Reina-Long said it's sometimes difficult to persuade others who have Type 2 diabetes or are obese to take the first steps toward improving their conditions.

''Many of them are really shy about coming in,'' she said. ''They don't want to be around people.''

Reina-Long now trains with her husband, Eric Long, a 33-year-old Navajo. Long said he first met his wife four years ago after she had taken large strides toward improving her condition.

''I didn't even know she had diabetes until after she told me,'' Long said.

Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which the body fails to properly use insulin, combined with an insulin deficiency. Most Americans who are diagnosed with diabetes have Type 2 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

If left untreated, Type 2 diabetes damages the eyes, kidneys, nerves and blood vessels. The disease can in some cases lead to blindness, require the amputation of limbs, and some patients must undergo kidney dialysis. Reina-Long said she hopes her story will inspire other members of her community who have diabetes.

''On the reservation, I see a lot of people who have Type 2 diabetes,'' she said. ''I'm hoping they'll see me and it'll help them get into the gym.''