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Exercise provides huge benefits for people with diabetes. It helps lower blood sugar levels and helps the body use insulin. This means that people with type 1 diabetes who exercise regularly may need less insulin. And people with type 2 diabetes who exercise may be able to control their diabetes without medication.

But that's not all exercise does. It lowers your risk for heart disease and stroke and helps reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. Exercise also can help you avoid major complications of diabetes by improving circulation in your arms and legs and preventing or reducing nerve pain. It helps you reduce your weight and increase your fitness level.

Use this diabetes exercise checklist to help you get up and get going.

First, Talk to your Doctor

Your doctor can help design an exercise program that's tailored to your needs. An exercise stress test or a baseline EKG may be needed before starting your new exercise routine. Working together, you and your doctor can:

  • Identify the best type of physical activity that will be safe and effective for you
  • Determine whether and how you need to adjust your medications as you exercise
  • Establish the best time of day for exercise, to avoid low blood sugar  
  • Find ways to minimize the impact of complications from diabetes such as heart and kidney disease or eye and foot problems

Design a Balanced, Diabetes-Safe Workout

The American Heart Association recommends that people with type 2 diabetes get two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week. You'll get more benefit if you spread your exercise hours out over the week -- say, 30 minutes a day, five days a week. You can even break up your 30 minutes a day into shorter intervals, such as a brisk 10-minute walk after each meal.

A good exercise program for people with diabetes should include:

  • Stretching. Ask your doctor about stretching exercises that will help you stay flexible and prevent soreness. Do them before and after other exercise. 
  • Aerobics. These activities get your heart rate up, such as walking briskly, mowing the lawn, hiking, dancing, cross-country skiing, or playing volleyball, tennis, or basketball. If problems with your feet are an issue, try exercises such as swimming or biking to put less stress on feet.
  • Strength training. Working out with hand weights, elastic bands, or weight machines three times a week will help you build muscle strength and improve bone health. Unless your doctor advises against it, this type of strength training is recommended three times a week.

Be realistic at the start. If it’s been a while since you exercised, plan to start with five or 10 minutes of exercise each day. Then you can gradually add a few more minutes at a time until you build up to 150 minutes a week.