How Exercise Helps Manage Diabetes

Exercise is recommended for everyone. But the big question is how exercise helps people manage diabetes who are having difficulty with maintaining appropriate blood glucose levels.

As a diabetic, or pre-diabetic, when you get up and get moving you will immediately feel better. But the benefits are much more far reaching than these immediate feelings. Exercise is one of the most recommended methods of managing diabetes. Exercise actually lowers blood sugar levels.

The Exercise Prescription

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes or as a person at risk for developing diabetes, your blood glucose, or blood sugar levels, are elevated. When these levels get too high they can cause real damage to your body’s systems. In order to combat these elevated glucose levels your doctor will prescribe a treatment plan to help you lower your glucose levels.

Every person will have their own individual treatment plan for controlling their diabetes. However, all treatment plans contain three basic prescriptions:[1]

  • Exercise
  • Healthy meal planning
  • Medical intervention, if needed

If you are like most people you are willing to try a new diet and have no problem with medical intervention. The real issues exist with adding exercise to your daily schedule. Can exercise really make a difference in your blood sugar levels?

It’s Hard to Believe, but it’s True!

Doctors have a difficult time convincing patients how exercise helps manage diabetes. Perhaps the easiest way to become convinced is to look at the specific benefits exercise has for you:

Benefits of Exercise in Managing Diabetes[2]

Lower blood glucose

Lower blood pressure

Ease ability to process insulin naturally

Lower bad cholesterol

Raise good cholesterol

Lessen heart disease risk

Increase weight loss

Reduce body fat

Increase energy

Lessen stress

Start Slowly

When you finally recognize that exercise can help manage your diabetes you may be tempted visit the gym ready to jump into lifting weights or doing vigorous cardio. Before starting an exercise program, if you have been living a sedentary life, keep in mind than you can over-do it and do damage to your body. As a diabetic, your first step should be to consult with a doctor to determine how to safely begin an exercise program and to discuss the best exercises to do given your current condition.

Doctors and health experts recommend that you begin your exercise program slowly. This is especially true if exercise is new to you. For example, a person who has never participated in exercise classes before will find that a thirty minute walk three times a week is an excellent place to start.

Walking is not the only way to get exercise each week. You can swim, walk up stairs instead of using the elevator, cycle, hike, walk the dog, or play a round of golf. Even housework offers exercise benefits if it is done with vigor.

Why Does It Work?

How does exercise affect blood glucose in diabetics? In a person who does not have diabetes, the hormone insulin is released from the pancreas as sugar in the bloodstream increases. The insulin hormone that is released motivates the liver and the muscles to absorb the extra sugar, glucose, in the body. What eventually occurs is that they body’s blood sugar levels are equaled out over time.

Of course, if you are a diabetic this process is not occurring properly in your body. Your body does not have the ability to equalize blood sugar levels or, in some cases, to produce the hormone insulin that is needed to help this equalization process.[3]

This is where exercise produces results diabetics and pre-diabetics must be aware of each time. Every time you exercise your body needs fuel. This fuel comes in the form of glucose. When you participate in moderate exercises your body will use the extra glucose in your system, (at times up to 20 times the normal rate), and your overall blood glucose level is lowered.[4]

It is important for most diabetics to adhere to moderate exercise programs. The exercise will make make your muscles more sensitive to the insulin produced by the pancreas, or injected if you are taking insulin. What this means practically is that you may need to decrease your insulin or medications as you start an exercise program. However, if you maintain a regular program of exercise, you and your doctor will be able to find the right balance of medications to keep your glucose in the normal range. With regular exercise, you can often reduce the amount of medications you depend on.

The Best Exercises

Cardio and strength training are the best types of exercises for diabetics once they begin to actually set aside a time for exercise and develop an exercise program. Remember, most diabetics have not exercised for many years. Their first experiences with exercise may be walking around the block with the dog. The best excerciese is one you do regularly, so be sure to find something you enjoy and can see yourself doing over the long term.

As they become stronger, they can develop a complete training program. You, as a diabetic interested in managing your health with exercise, may choose to hire a personal trainer to stay on track.

Risks to Exercising

As a diabetic, there are some risks to beginning an exercise plan. Since exercise lowers blood pressure there is a slight danger it could become too low and you could slip into a state of hypoglycemia.

Doctors urge patients to test their glucose levels before exercising.[6] They should also test them during and after exercising.  As you measure your glucose levels you will get a true sense of how you are responding to your new exercise program.

Once you begin an exercise program, you and your doctor will need to fine-tune your overall medical management program. You may need to change your diet or your medications to accommodate the exercise added to your lifestyle as your physical conditioning improves.

Dual Epidemics

Obesity and diabetes are now considered dual epidemics. It is currently estimated that that 66 percent of Americans are overweight and 32 percent are obese. It was also estimated that as many as 24 million people live with diabetes. Studies have explored the relationship of exercise and obesity to diabetes. It discovered that moderate exercise or physical activity can reduce mortality due to diabetes.

In a Finnish study, the risk of diabetes is reduced by 58 percent with the intervention of moderate exercise. In fact, patients in the study group who exceeded the recommended time of moderate exercise – 4 hours – reduced their risk by up to 80 percent.

The question of how exercise helps manage diabetes can be easily answered. Exercise should be a part of every diabetic and pre-diabetics health management plan.


[1]  Exercise Prescription for Diabetes. (n.d.). Retrieved from The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide:

[2]  What I Need To Know About Physical Activity and Diabetes. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse:

[3]  Ibid

[4]  Ibid

[5]  Kym Guelfi, T. J. (2005). The Decline in Blood glucose Levels is Less witth Intermittent High Intensity Compared with Moderate Exercises in Individuals with type 1 diabetes. Diabetes Care , 1289-1293.

[6]  What I Need To Know About Physical Activity and Diabetes. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse:

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