Why It’s Important to Exercise When You Have Diabetes

November 2021

If you’re living with diabetes, you know it’s important to monitor your blood sugar and take any medications your doctor prescribes.

But there’s another factor that may be just as important as diet and medication: exercise.

While we often view exercise as a means to lose weight, it has many other benefits. Exercise can strengthen your heart and improve your mood. It can also help lower your blood pressure and boost your energy.

Not only that, it can help people with diabetes control their blood sugar. Physical activity increases your insulin sensitivity, which means your body processes glucose better. Exercising can actually lower your blood sugar for up to 24 hours after your workout!

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

The Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes offers several recommendations for how much exercise people with diabetes should get.

Adults with diabetes should aim to meet these guidelines. The goal is to get you exercising regularly and consistently.

  • Engage in 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity aerobic exercise OR 75 minutes of vigorous intensity or interval training a week. (Walking briskly, swimming, or cycling on flat ground is moderate; running, rowing, or doing hill/speed intervals on a bike are examples of more vigorous activity.)
  • Spread your exercise sessions over at least three days/week.
  • Try not to go more than two consecutive days without exercising.
  • Add in resistance training two to three times a week. This could be weight training (machines or free weights), core workouts such as Pilates, or other strength workouts.
  • Interrupt bouts of sitting at least every 30 minutes to help lower blood glucose.
  • Add in balance training and flexibility training two to three times a week if you’re an older adult with diabetes. Tai chi, yoga, or other group exercise classes aimed at older adults are good options.

What’s the Best Exercise for People With Diabetes?

Getting 150 minutes of exercise each week can feel like an overwhelming goal, especially if you are newer to an exercise program. That’s why the best exercise is one that you feel motivated to do regularly.

For one person, that might be playing tennis three times a week. For another, walking briskly most days for 30 minutes while listening to audiobooks or podcasts might work best.

Here are a few other tips that can help:

  • Put exercise on your calendar: Schedule your exercise the way you would a Zoom call, a lunch with a friend, or a work meeting.
  • Buddy up: Working out with a partner can help you feel more accountable. If you’ve agreed to meet a friend at 6:00 a.m., you don’t want to be the one who doesn’t show!
  • Set a goal: Sign up for a 5K walk or aim to get in a certain number of steps every day. Make your goal measurable.
  • Use technology: You can track just about everything with your smartphone, from steps to flights of stairs climbed. Use apps or turn it into a game (with rewards for meeting your goals).

Exercising Safely With Diabetes

The CDC recommends that people with diabetes pay special attention to a few different things.

First, monitor your feet for cuts, sores, blisters, or other injuries. This is especially important after exercising. If an injury isn’t healing properly after two days, call your doctor.

Make it a habit to test your blood sugar before you exercise. You don’t want your levels to fall too low (hypoglycemia) while exercising. If your blood sugar is below 100 mg, try eating a light snack with 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrates before exercising.

The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes complications┬átalk to their doctor before starting an exercise program. These complications include different types of neuropathies, vascular issues, high blood pressure, and arthritis. There are some types of exercise you’ll want to avoid, such as strenuous activities that are too high impact or require heavy lifting.

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