Working Out Your Diabetes

Diabetes and exercise explained

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

Over the past decade, scientists and researchers have worked hard to find new drug treatments for diabetes. But even as patients have a growing variety of drug options, diet and exercise are still essential ways to prevent and control diabetes.

If you have diabetes, it means you have high levels of blood glucose, or too much sugar in your blood. Glucose is crucial to your health because your body uses it as a source of energy.

However, you can face some serious health problems if you have too much glucose in your blood.

So, how can you take care of your diabetes?

There are three main ways to control your disease. First, you should get regular exercise. That is, you should be physically active throughout your week. That does not mean you have to be training for a marathon. Even a few hours of exercise per week can make all the difference.

Second, you should follow a healthy diet in order to maintain or lose weight.

Third, if prescribed by your doctor, you can take medications that lower your blood sugar or boost your levels of insulin, a hormone that helps manage blood sugar levels.

How is exercise good for me and my diabetes?

Physical activity is a key part of managing your diabetes. Not only does exercise help improve your blood sugar levels, it also can boost your overall fitness. What's more, exercise can reduce your risk of diabetes-related complications like heart disease and nerve damage.

There are many things that exercise can do for your health, including:

  • lowering your blood sugar
  • lowering your blood pressure
  • lowering your LDL, or "bad," cholesterol
  • increasing your HDL, or "good," cholesterol
  • improving your body's use of insulin
  • reducing your body fat and helping you lose weight
  • reducing your risk of heart disease and stroke
  • increasing your energy
  • lowering your levels of stress
  • maintaining your heart and bone health
  • keeping your joints flexible
  • reducing your risk of falling

What types of physical activities are beneficial?

In general, any physical activity is better than none at all, as long as the activities are done correctly and safely. Physical activity can both help manage and prevent diabetes. Whether you have diabetes or not, exercise is good for you.

The Diabetes Prevention Program - a large study on people with prediabetes - showed the benefits of both physical activity and weight loss in preventing diabetes. At least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, or about 30 minutes of exercise five times a week, helped patients lose weight. The findings showed that modest weight loss (about five to seven percent of body weight) can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Four types of physical activity can help you control your diabetes and boost your overall health. These include:

  • aerobic exercises
  • strengthening exercises
  • flexibility exercises
  • everyday activities
Aerobic Exercises

Aerobic exercises are the most beneficial to your overall fitness. They help you lose weight, give you more energy, improve your muscle function, and improve your heart and lung health. Aerobic exercises also can boost your mood and give you a better night's rest.

Examples of aerobic exercise include:

  • running
  • walking briskly
  • hiking
  • bicycle riding
  • swimming
  • water aerobics
  • climbing stairs
  • dancing
  • basketball, soccer, and other sports

According to the American Diabetes Association, people with prediabetes or diabetes and the general public should get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days.

Strengthening Exercises

Strengthening exercises are designed to increase muscle strength and build strong bones. If you have more muscle, you burn more calories, even if you are resting. Strengthening exercises also can keep you from gaining weight.

Examples of strengthening exercises include:

  • lifting weights
  • pulling elastic bands
  • calisthenics, or bodyweight exercises like sit-ups and push-ups
Flexibility Exercises

Before you do any aerobic or strengthening exercises, it is important to stretch. Flexibility exercises, or stretching exercises, help keep your joints flexible and lower your risk of hurting yourself during physical activity. Stretching also reduces stress and helps prevent muscle soreness after workouts.

In order to get ready for an aerobic workout, you should stretch for about five to 10 minutes beforehand.

There are many ways to fit flexibility exercises into your day, including:

  • aerobics or fitness classes that include stretching
  • yoga or Pilates classes
  • stretching on your own before and after a workout
Everyday Activities

In addition to doing more formal types of exercise, you can try to be more active during everyday activities. Instead of taking the elevator, for example, you could use the stairs. Making these kind of choices will help you burn more calories.

Other things you could do to be active throughout your day include:

  • walking instead of driving
  • housecleaning
  • gardening, raking leaves, or other yard work
  • walk in place or stretch while watching TV
  • get up and walk around every hour or so while you are at work
  • park farther from your destination so you have to walk a longer distance
  • walk down every aisle at the grocery store

Is it always safe to exercise with diabetes?

Talk to your doctor before you start any exercise program. Your doctor and other health care providers can tell you which activities will be safe and what time of day you should exercise.

In patients who take insulin or certain kinds of diabetes drugs, physical activity can cause dangerously low levels of blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. Your blood sugar can drop during exercise, immediately after, or even a day later. If you have low blood sugar, you may feel weak, hungry, shaky, confused, grumpy, or tired. You could even pass out or have a seizure if you blood sugar drops too low.

These potential risks should not keep you from exercising. Instead, you should take steps to avoid and prepare yourself for low blood sugar.

Ask your doctor if you should check your blood sugar before exercise. If you are taking diabetes drugs that can cause low blood sugar, your doctor may suggest you change your dose before exercise. If your blood sugar is below 100, you may need only to eat a snack.

During exercise, you should be prepared for low blood sugar. Carry a snack or glucose tablets with you in case your blood sugar drops.

If you are going to exercise for more than an hour, check your blood sugar at regular intervals throughout your workout. You may need to eat something when you finish.

After your workout, check your blood sugar level.

What do I do before starting an exercise program?

It always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting any new therapy, including exercise. Ask how your medications mix with physical activity. You may need to change your drug dose before exercise.

There are many risks associated with diabetes, including heart disease, kidney disease, eye problems, and foot problems. If you have any of these complications, ask your doctor which exercises are safe for you.

It is also important to plan and set goals before starting an exercise program. Decide what activities you want to do and the gear you will need.

Plan the day, time, and length of each exercise session. Make time for warming up, stretching, and cooling down each time you exercise.

Keep track of your progress.

Diabetes can be a difficult and complex disease to treat. That is why it is important to work with your medical team to find the best treatment plan for you.

Drugs may or may not be a part of your treatment plan. Physical activity, however, should be a part of everyone's life, diabetes or not. Exercise is a cheap and easy way to take control of your condition and improve your overall health. 

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 26, 2012