How to Succeed With Your Diabetes Exercise Plan

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on August 21, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

Ready to get fit? It’s good for your diabetes, burns off stress, and makes you feel good. Once it becomes a habit, you might be surprised to find that you look forward to your workouts!

First, check in with your doctor to find out if you should avoid any activities. You might be able to do more than you think you can.

Once your doctor gives you the green light, your choices are wide open. What activities sound like fun? Pick something you’ll enjoy.

Check your blood sugar, also called glucose, before and after exercise. "It's a motivation tool," says Jacqueline Shahar, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “When you exercise and see your blood glucose improve, you'll probably do more because it's going in the right direction."

In time, your doctor might be able to lower your insulin or diabetes medications. You should still check that your blood sugar isn't too high or too low.

Keep snacks on hand for low blood sugar. Be prepared. Bring fast-acting snacks to the gym or on your outdoor workout in case your blood sugar drops too low while you're exercising.

Wear comfortable shoes. Good shoes will help you avoid foot problems, which can be more serious when you have diabetes. They should be appropriate for your activity. When in doubt, ask your doctor.

Wear a diabetes ID. Wear a bracelet or necklace, or carry something that says you have diabetes. It should list an emergency contact and say whether you take insulin.

No Time for Exercise?

Jennifer Auyer of Nashua, N.H., knows what that’s like. Between her job and her family, there wasn’t an easy spot on her schedule for working out.

Her father became her reason to do it anyway.

Auyer’s dad had many health problems related to type 2 diabetes, including heart disease, a foot amputation, and vision problems. He died young from those complications at age 61.

Growing up, Auyer never saw her father, a heavy man, exercise.

She was overweight, too, and knew she needed to make a change. "I said, 'I don't want to go through what he went through.' I was following the same path,” she says. “I wanted to find something to help me.”

Take It One Step at a Time

When Auyer heard about a weight loss and exercise class at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, she signed up fast.

She learned strength training exercises using elastic bands. She also started interval training, which means you switch your intensity or pace to make it harder or easier throughout your workout. For instance, Auyer walks on a treadmill for 10 minutes and then runs for a few more minutes.

"The next thing you know, an hour has gone by, and I feel so invigorated,” she says.

Get stronger, and your muscles burn more glucose. You will also burn more calories, says Shahar, who taught Auyer’s class.

Reaping the Benefits

To Auyer’s delight, her blood sugar levels improved.

"Almost immediately, I noticed a change in my morning blood sugars, which are always really high," she says. After she started to exercise regularly, "they were dropping from an average of about 140 to 110. I was so excited one day -- I had one under 100."

Shahar tells people with diabetes that “their muscles are kind of sleeping, so they’re not burning glucose or calories. But if they exercise, they keep their muscles awake all the time. They keep burning calories, they lose weight, [and] they make the glucose work more efficiently in their body."

Miss a Workout?

Setbacks happen -- you get sick, go on a trip, or have a crunch time at work. Make it a point to get back on track.

Auyer’s advice: Remember why you started.

"For me, that reason was my father. This is what he would want and this is important," she says. "That's the motivation to keep going."

Show Sources


Jennifer Auyer, Nashua, N.H.

Jacqueline Shahar, MEd, RCEP, CDE, clinical exercise physiologist; manager, exercise physiology department, Joslin Diabetes Center, Cambridge, MA.

Joslin Diabetes Center: "Q&A: Jacqueline Shahar on Diabetes and Exercise."

Joslin Diabetes Center: "Get Smart About Exercise and Hypoglycemia."

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