Physical Activity and Diabetes

Reviewed by Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
Exercise and Diabetes

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Adults — with or without diabetes — need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. Plus, experts also recommend resistance and strength exercises at least twice per week.

Fight Diabetes with Physical Activity

Exercise delays the onset of  Type 2 diabetes. And, it improves diabetes control. Whether you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, or if you are at risk for diabetes, get moving!

Physical activity:

  • Raises your heart rate. Whether by walking, jogging, bicycling or swimming, being active gets your heart pumping, which helps your body use insulin more effectively.
  • Improves blood circulation. Exercise also gets the blood to all organs, especially the kidneys, brain, heart and eyes, which can be injured by poor diabetes management.
  • Decreases risk of heart disease. Plus, by reducing LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, regular activity reduces your risk of heart disease.
  • Reduces stress. Stress can increase you risk for developing diabetes. And, for people with diabetes, stress makes it harder to manage the condition.
  • Lowers blood sugar and A1c. Exercising when you have diabetes lowers blood sugar and reduces A1c. It also improves protein and fat metabolism, slowing organ damage.

Check in with Your Doctor

Before beginning a program of physical activity of more than brisk walking, you should be assessed by your doctor. If you are taking insulin, you need to keep a close eye on your carbohydrate intake and how you feel. If your medicine dose is not adjusted properly, you may be at risk for hypoglycemia.

Whether starting your first exercise program or training for an endurance event — such as a marathon or triathlon — increase your training slowly, check your blood sugars, and fuel and hydrate before, during and after exercising. Your goal is to be in the blood glucose range that your health care provider recommends. As your fitness improves, you will reap greater health benefits.

Pick an Activity

Did you know that dancing and gardening count as physical activity? Cleaning counts towards your activity minutes, too. Some examples of moderate physical activity are walking (including at the grocery store and mall), stationary bicycling, swimming, badminton, mowing the lawn and mopping or scrubbing the floor.

Also, you don't need to get all of your physical activity done at one time — spread it throughout the day and week. Start slowly and build from where you are, then mix it up. Remember, you don't have to do it all at once; start with as little as 5 minutes and then build up gradually. Try different activities to keep you going and keep you interested.

Resistance exercise includes activities that increase strength and muscle mass. Some examples include body weight exercises such as push-ups and lunges, as well as using resistant bands or free weights.

Fuel Smart for Activity

Your new exercise program may require some changes to how you eat. If you have diabetes, activity can lower your blood sugars and your health care provider may adjust your diabetes medicine. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help you adjust your meal plan so you have the fuel your body needs.

  • BeforeA small whole-grain or carbohydrate snack with some protein provides enduring energy for your activity. You'll need about 150 to 200 calories, as found in ½ cup oatmeal and ½ cup fat-free milk, or a slice of whole-grain bread with a tablespoon of peanut butter.
  • During If you're exercising for more than an hour, you may need additional carbohydrates (such as 8 ounces of a sport beverage, half a banana or a handful of raisins) during activity to prevent low blood sugar.
  • After If you plan to exercise for more than an hour, refuel with a post-workout snack, such as 6 ounces of fat-free yogurt and a small apple.
  • Fluids Before, during and after exercising, stay hydrated by drinking water. Drink 8 ounces of water before exercise, and continue drinking water so that you have clear urine within two hours of completing your activity. If urine is dark colored, keep drinking water until it is clear.

3-Step Beginner Walking Plan

Step 1: Get Ready!

  • Wear comfortable clothes and supportive shoes.
  • Set aside time each day for your new activity.
  • Plan your route. An outdoor trail, a gym treadmill, a museum or a shopping mall — there are plenty of options to accommodate for any weather conditions. Recruit a friend or listen to your favorite music or podcast.

Step 2: Get Set!

  • Go at a comfortable pace for you. Ask your doctor for your safe target heart rate.
  • Set a goal based on time or distance:
    • Time-based goal
      -Weeks 1-2: Walk 15 minutes a day on 3 days.
      -Weeks 3-5: Increase walking time to 20 minutes a day on 4 days each week.
      -Weeks 6-8: Increase walking time by 5 minutes a day with a goal of walking 30 or more minutes on at least 5 days a week.
    • Distance-based goal:
      -While wearing a pedometer, record your steps each day for a week.
      -Add 500 steps each day on at least 3 days in the next week.
      -Increase every few weeks to reach your goal of 8,000 to 10,000 steps daily on at least 5 days per week.

Step 3: Go!

  • Keep a record of your daily and weekly time or distance goals and achievements.
  • If you have diabetes, also record your blood sugar readings before and after exercising.
  • Writing down your progress lets you see your accomplishments and increases your opportunity for success.

Find an Expert

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