What to Know Before You Exercise With Diabetes

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on March 04, 2023

Exercise may do more things for you than you realize, if you have diabetes.

You probably already know that it's good for your heart, and that it can help you lose weight. But did you know that it will lower your blood sugar levels by prompting your body to use insulin more effectively? It may also help you need less medication, insulin, or other therapies.

Over time, it can help your A1c level, which reflects your blood sugar control over the past 3 months. Plus, exercise makes you less likely to get heart disease, and it can help you lose weight when coupled with dieting.

Start with these 7 simple strategies:

Your doctor will make sure you're ready for whatever you want to do. Just a few things, like lifting heavy weights, can be dangerous if diabetes has damaged the blood vessels in your eyes, or if you have cataracts or glaucoma. And if you have diabetes-related nerve damage in your feet, you may need to choose activities that don't put too much pressure on your feet. There will still be plenty of things you can do. Your doctor should be able to advise you on what you can do, and may also recommend taking an exercise stress test.

You can generally do just about any type of exercise you enjoy when you have diabetes. Walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, and other cardio activities are great for torching calories and getting your heart pumping. Your goal: Build up to at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity.

Using weights or working with resistance bands helps build muscle. More muscle activity also boosts your metabolism, so you'll burn more calories throughout the day and night, even after your workout.

Be sure to ask your doctor about how any medicine you're taking might affect you during exercise. Some drugs may make your blood sugar drop too low, causing dizziness, fainting, or seizures. Simple steps, such as testing your blood sugar before you work out and eating a snack if your level is below 100, can help a lot. You may also want to keep some juice or glucose tablets on hand for a quick boost if your sugar does drop unexpectedly. If you take insulin or other medications, ask your doctor if you need to adjust them on days you exercise or just before heading to the gym.

When it's time to get moving, warm up before and cool down after. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise so you don't get dehydrated. It's normal to have some mild soreness after you start working out, and you should be breathing harder when you're exercising. It's unlikely, but if you have any sudden pain; or if you can't catch your breath after slowing down or stopping; or if you get lightheaded – stop, and let your doctor know about any problems.

When you have diabetes, you have to be on the lookout for foot problems. Check your feet before and after you exercise for any blisters or irritation. Moisture-wicking socks and gel insoles can help protect your feet.

It's also a good idea to wear a medical ID tag so that others will know about your condition in the event of an emergency.

If you're new to exercise, consider booking a few sessions with a personal trainer -- ideally someone who has experience working with people who have diabetes. A professional can help you learn the basics, including how to avoid injury, and guide you in setting a routine you can stick with.

Show Sources


American Diabetes Association: "Blood Glucose Control and Exercise" and "Injury-Free Exercise -- 11 Quick Safety Tips." 

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

American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care, January 2014.

Wayne Westcott, PhD, instructor of exercise science, Quincy College.

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