Exercise for Diabetics

Exercise for diabetics is just as important as meal management when it comes to controlling blood glucose levels.  Exercise will help you manage blood glucose levels, improve insulin sensitivity and achieve an overall reduction in body fat. And that is just a few of the benefits. With exercise you will improve your heart health and overall mood too.

Exercise is important for people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and people screened as pre-diabetic. If you have been diagnosed with gestational diabetes while pregnant, you can exercise to help control this form of the disease as well. In other words, all diabetics should regularly exercise.

Getting Physical

Getting regular exercise may require many diabetics to change their lifestyles, especially considering the high rates of diabetics who are overweight or obese. The main motivation for adopting a more active lifestyle is the fact  it could extend your life and reduce the number and severity of diabetic complications.

When you have been diagnosed as a diabetic, you need to immediately get physical. If you don’t currently exercise, it’s really simple: move your body. Do anything that causes your body to use energy. There is a wealth of wonderful ideas that you can choose from and slowly get into a ‘physical’ mind set.

Little things you do around the house can use up energy and be considered exercise. Gardening, vacuuming, climbing stairs, and more household activities can get you moving.

If you have never exercised before, or if it has been a long time, you will want to begin a moderate physical exercise program to help manage your diabetes. Moderate activities include walking short distances and gardening.

Moderate Activities to Get You Started:

  • Walking – slowly build up to 3 to 4 miles per hour
  • Cycling – stay at around 5 to 10 miles per hour
  • Gardening
  • Dancing
  • Golf – without the golf cart
  • Swimming’
  • Canoeing
  • Tennis

As you build up your endurance you can add to the activities you are currently doing or add totally new exercises to your regimen:

  • Running and jogging
  • Running walk
  • Longer cycling
  • Yard work
  • Aerobics
  • Competitive sports such as basketball

Why Does Exercise Matter?

We have mentioned several reasons that exercise is important for diabetics. It helps lower glucose and control blood sugar, it improves insulin sensitivity, and it is an excellent choice for developing heart health. Exercise , especially cardio exercise, can lower blood pressure, lessen bad cholesterol, lower body fat, and up your sensitivity to insulin.

For prediabetics, even mild to moderate cardio exercise can lessen your danger for developing type 2 diabetes. When compared to people with low cardiovascular fitness, those with high cardiovascular fitness develop diabetes one-thrid as often.

Exercise has been proven to be of significant benefit in preventing or treating the following diseases:

  • Diabetes
  • Cancer (breast and colon)
  • Hypertension
  • Depression
  • Osteoporosis
  • Dementia
  • Coronary Artery Disease

How Much Exercise is Right for a Diabetic?

Do not think you have to become a body builder or spend hours in a gym to get healthy. In fact, some of the best exercises can be done in and around the home. The great outdoors can become your new exercise haven.

The experts recommend that diabetics exercise for 150 minutes per week in order to control their blood sugar levels. These 150 minutes should include moderate intensity exercises. This means you utilize around fifty to seventy percent of your heart rate.

Recommendations from the experts also include another choice for those who want to exercise a little more intensely. Instead of 150 minutes of moderate exercise you can cut the time spent exercising down to approximately 90 minutes with more energetic exercises. Vigorous exercises increase the heart rate to seventy percent and above.

Whether you choose to follow a moderate exercise program or a vigorous program, it is recommended that you actively get cardio exercise at least three days every week. However, do not ever exercise on back-to-back days. As people diagnosed with diabetes begin their exercise program, they sometimes want to go full force. They may want to exercise every day. If you follow an aerobic/cardio workout program everyday you can harm your body and put all your hard work in danger of failing. If this is a goal for you, then you have to build up to it slowly to prevent injuries.

This is where strength training comes in to play. On your ‘off’ days you can create a strength training circuit that does not involve aerobic exercises while still focusing on your health.

Strength training is performed to lessen overall fat while building muscle.  It is excellent not only for your off days; it is a good exercise choice for anyone who cannot perform aerobic exercises.

Many strength training exercises rely on resistance training. They can be performed up to two or three times per week, on the days you do not do aerobic exercises. You may have heard of this type of training: you will build up repetitions. For example, you might build up to two sets of ten repetitions with hand weights over a certain period of time.

Taking Care of Yourself

You must take care of yourself as you exercise when you have diabetes. If you have diabetes you are at a higher risk for heart disease and other health problems that can be exacerbated by improper exercising. It’s important to check with your doctor before you begin any exercise program.

If your diabetes is not yet controlled, you will want to slowly begin an exercise regimen. Doing strenuous exercises too soon or improperly can cause problems with the blood vessels in the eyes of a diabetic and can do damage to the blood vessels in the feet.

Follow these suggestions closely:[1]

  • Always wear protective footwear rated for exercise
  • Check your glucose levels before exercise. Also monitor blood glucose during exercise and check again when you are finished with your exercise regimen, (do no exercises when readings are above 300 mg/dL or if they fall below 100 mg/dL)
  • Hypoglycemia can become a problem during exercise; to avoid do not use muscles  that will be used during workouts for injections and keep glucose pills on hand2
  • Keep your body replenished with fluids
  • Work with your doctor to determine insulin levels as they may increase/decrease during workout periods

Strength training and cardio exercises are great ways to pump up your overall approach to maintaining your diabetic health. Exercises range from aerobic, cardio type exercises to rep, strength training  – all of which can help you control your blood glucose levels, improve your heart health, keep joints flexible, reduce your weight and body fat, and lengthen your life!3


[1]  Exercise – Exercise’s Effects on Diabetes (2011) Retrieved from The University of Maryland Medical Center at http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/what_effects_of_exercise_on_diabetes_000029_4.htm

2 Briscoe, V. J., Tate D.B. and Davis, S.N., Type 1 diabetes: exercise and hypoglycemia. (June 2007) Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, v32:3, 576-82.

3 What I Need to know about Physical Activity and Diabetes (March 2008) Retrieved from The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC) at: http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/physical_ez/#lifestyle

This article was originally published July 12, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/10/2015.