Exercise With Diabetes: Tips for Working Out

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on May 18, 2021

You may have heard exercise helps you burn extra sugar in your body and that it can make your body more sensitive to insulin, which is a good thing. It’s true! Exercise can also bust stress and boost your mood and overall health. 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, ideally for 30 minutes a day, 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.
  • Two or three sessions of strength training each week. The more muscle mass you have, the better your body can handle 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.

Exercise Safely

  • Get your doctor’s OK before starting an exercise program. Make sure your doctor reviews your diabetes drugs.
  • Carry at least 15 grams of a fast-acting carbohydrate in case of low blood sugar. It might be a half-cup of fruit juice or glucose tablets or gels that equal 15 grams.
  • Wear well-fitting shoes that are for the activity you’re doing, and choose athletic polyester socks. They dry quicker and cause less friction than all-cotton socks.
  • Inspect your feet before and after exercise. Check for blisters or sores. If you notice any, get treatment right away.
  • Drink plenty of fluid before, during, and after exercise. You lose water when you exercise, and that can upset your blood sugar levels. This is even more important if you 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.
  • Wear a medical ID bracelet or carry a medical ID in your pocket.
  • Check your blood sugar level before and after exercise to make sure it’s in your target range. Your doctor can tell you what it should be before you start exercising. This is very important if you take insulin. After an intense workout or exercising for a long time, you may want to eat something with at least 15 grams of carbohydrates within 2 hours. This will help you avoid low blood sugar.
  • If you become shaky, anxious, or more sweaty than usual, or feel a change in your heartbeat, stop exercising right away and check your blood sugar. If it is low, follow your doctor’s advice about how to treat it.
  • Always warm up for 5 to 10 minutes at the start of your workout. For instance, walk or bike slowly. Do 5 to 10 minutes of cool-down and gentle stretching at the end.
  • Be safe when lifting weights. 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.
  • Watch the temperature. If it's very hot or cold, watch your blood sugar. Your body uses insulin differently at extreme temperatures.
  • Check for ketones. If you have type 1 diabetes, do not exercise if your blood sugar is higher 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.

Quick Gym-Free Workouts

Anything that gets your heart pumping and makes you break a sweat will do. You don’t need a health club membership or personal trainer. And here’s a little secret: You don’t have to do 30 minutes all at once. Ten minutes in the morning, 10 minutes in the afternoon, and 10 minutes after dinner is just fine.

And if you're just starting out? Any exercise at all is good for you, even if you do it for just 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.

Here are some easy daily activities that count toward your daily goal.

  • Walk the dog. If you don’t have a pet, walk with a friend or neighbor. Or get some work buddies to join you in a lunchtime stroll. 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.
  • 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.
  • Rake leaves, mow the lawn, or dig in the dirt to clean up your garden.
  • Play tag with your children or grandchildren.
  • Ballroom dance. You can also take dance lessons -- modern, ballet, or hip-hop. It doesn’t matter what type of dance you choose, as long as you get moving.
  • Roller skate. It burns about 225 calories per hour and uses muscles that may be rusty.
  • Play tennis or any team sport. You’ll make some new friends and stay active.
  • Swim. It's a great total body workout and helps you relax. It’s also a low-impact workout that is easy on your joints.
  • Take an evening after-dinner walk. Walking at the end of day can help you unwind and feel less stressed after a busy day. Challenge yourself with plenty of hills and new routes.
  • Wash your car or clean the house. Even if you get your closets in order instead of doing a deep cleaning, you’re still moving.

Try to sneak activity into your day when and where you can:

  • When doing work around the house, pump up some fun music and make all your movements bigger. Squat while you work: Bend from the hips and knees like you're sitting down in a chair. Make sure your knees don't go farther forward than your toes.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator. If you’re going to a high floor, get off a couple of floors below and climb the rest of the way.
  • Don't call or email your colleagues at work. Walk over to a co-worker’s desk for a face-to-face.
  • Walk or pace when you're on the phone, at home, or at work.
  • Park your car at the far end of the parking lot. And bring your bags out to the car after every purchase.
  • 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 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.

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. Then, a few weeks or months later, the routine fizzles out and the yoga mat, squash racquet, or Rollerblades gather dust in the garage.

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.

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, do it at home. If exercise feels too hard, try dropping down to an easier level and build up.

Show Sources

SOURCES: “Diabetes and Exercise.” “Diabetes & Fitness: Get Moving! -- with Richard Weil, MEd, CDE.”

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC): “What I need to know about Physical Activity and Diabetes.”

Ann Levine, diabetes clinical nurse specialist, Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, N.Y.

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

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