Diabetes and Exercise: Ideas to Get You Moving

If you have diabetes, your doctor may have been telling you for ages: You need to exercise more. Staying active helps you control your blood sugar and cuts your odds of heart problems and other health issues diabetes can cause. But knowing that you should exercise doesn't always make it easier to do it.

Busy schedules, families, and work can make it hard for anyone to stick to an exercise plan. And diabetes can make it harder. Issues such as nerve damage, eye disease, and fatigue may all make it tough to stay fit. You may also be afraid of your blood sugars dropping too low.

But you can do it -- even if you've never liked exercise and don't know where to start. These ideas can help you get moving safely, no matter what shape you're in.

Diabetes and Exercise: How Much and Why?

Experts say people with diabetes should shoot for:

  • 150 minutes or more of aerobic exercise each week. Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can make insulin work better and lower blood sugar long-term. And it makes you less likely to have health problems linked to diabetes, like heart disease. Brisk walks, biking, tennis, or anything else that gets your heart rate up is great.
  • 2 to 3 sessions of strength training each week. The more muscle mass you have, the better your body can process blood sugar. Working muscles first use stored sugars and then blood sugars for energy. Muscle also burns more calories than fat. Lifting weights, sit-ups, pushups, and resistance exercises will help.

If you haven't been working out, 150 minutes may sound like an awful lot of exercise. Don't let that put you off -- instead, divide it up. It breaks down to 30 minutes, 5 days a week. And you don't have to do the 30 minutes all at once. Exercise for 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at lunch, and 10 minutes in the evening, and you've got 30 minutes total.

And if you're just starting out? Any exercise at all is good for you, even if you only do it for 5 or 10 minutes a day. Once you're used to that, slowly increase the time each day.

If you have diabetes and haven't been active, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.


Best Diabetes Exercises

Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, just about any activity that gets your heart rate up or builds strength is a good idea. Anything from line dancing to table tennis can work. Here are a few to try.

  • Walk more -- briskly. For most people with diabetes, walking is a great choice. It's easy. You can do it anywhere. You don't need any gear besides a good pair of sneakers. If you have foot problems from diabetes, though, your doctor may advise you to do exercises that get you off your feet.
  • Get off your feet. If you have poor blood flow and nerve damage, opt for low-impact exercises to protect your feet from injury. Swimming and biking are both good choices.
  • Consider tai chi or yoga. Some studies show that both are good ways to lower blood sugar if you have type 2 diabetes. They also help ease stress, expand your muscles' range of motion, and help improve balance, so you are less likely to fall.
  • Be safe when lifting weights. Starting a weight-training program can improve your glucose levels and how you feel. You want your routine to work major muscle groups in your upper and lower body and your core. If you have vision damage or kidney problems from diabetes, though, weightlifting can hurt blood vessels and worsen some conditions. In that case, talk to your doctor before you start lifting weights.


Diabetes and Exercise: Getting Started

  • Start slowly. If you haven't exercised in a while, begin with just 5 to 10 minutes a day. Build up by adding a few minutes or repetitions each week.
  • Add to your daily activity. Exercise doesn't only happen when you're suited up in workout gear. Add a little extra movement during the day when you can. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther away from the grocery store so you have to take more steps to get there. Take a less direct route into the house. Any extra movement counts.
  • Relax, actively. You don't have to choose between exercise and TV. Set up a home treadmill, exercise bike, or exercise mat in front of the TV. Choose a couple of shows that you watch only when you're moving. Or divide watching a movie into 30-minute sessions, working out during each. You'll do most of your 150 minutes of aerobic exercise in just one movie.
  • Multitask. It's not only TV time that can double up as active time. Call a friend or relative when you're on a walk. Save a book or favorite magazine to read while you're on an exercise bike.
  • If you hate exercise, think about why. Write down the five things you think are worst about exercise. Then figure out how to make them better. If you think it's boring or lonely, join a class or go on walks with a friend. If you hate the gym scene, do it at home. If exercise feels too hard, try dropping down to an easier level and build up.


Tips for Moving Safely

Take these extra steps to care for your diabetes when you work out.

  • Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise routine. They may have some advice about the best approach for you.
  • Hydrate. You lose water when you exercise, and that can upset your blood sugar levels. Make sure to drink water before, during, and after exercise to make up for what you lose. This is even more important if have nerve damage from diabetes. Talk to your doctor about the best fluids to drink while exercising, especially if you take insulin or a drug that can lower your blood sugar.
  • Protect your feet. Nerve damage and blood flow problems from diabetes can lead to foot wounds, so be careful. Get a good pair of sneakers that feels comfortable. Before and after exercise, check your feet for sores, blisters, or other signs of irritation. If you notice any, get treatment right away.
  • Ask your doctor if you should check your blood sugar before, during, or after exercise. Find out how certain exercises, and how long you do them, change your blood sugar. Learn what levels are too low and too high for moving safely. Learn how to treat signs of low blood sugar and what types of snacks to eat to prevent them.
  • Watch the temperature. If it's very hot or cold, watch your blood sugar. Your body uses insulin differently at extreme temperatures.
  • Wear a medical ID tag. Wear a tag like MedicAlert or carry an ID card that says you have diabetes.
  • Keep a snack handy. Have a snack with you in case your blood sugar level drops low while you exercise.
  • Check for ketones. If you have type 1 diabetes, do not exercise if your blood sugar is greater than 250 mg/dL and your ketones are positive. This could mean you have low insulin levels and exercise will raise your blood sugar level.

Diabetes and Exercise: Change It Up

It happens: You think you've finally found an exercise routine you can stick with forever. At last you'll be in shape, you sigh. Then, a few weeks or months later, the routine fizzles out -- and the yoga mat, squash racquet, or Rollerblades gather dust in the garage.

When this happens, don't get down on yourself or give up. If you have diabetes, being active is too important for your health. As soon as you feel yourself getting bored with a routine, try something else.

Some people seem wired to jog five times a week for their whole lives, rain or shine. The rest of us aren't. That's nothing to be ashamed of -- you may just need to mix it up sometimes. Try new things to keep moving fun. That could be your key to better health and good diabetes control.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on February 23, 2020



FamilyDoctor.org: "Diabetes and Exercise."

American Diabetes Association: "Types of Exercise," "Tai Chi Can Help People with Diabetes Lower Glucose Levels," "Twisting without Shouting."

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse: "What I Need to Know about Physical Activity and Diabetes."

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