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Benefits of Exercise for People with Diabetes

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2021

Everyone benefits from regular exercise, whether they have diabetes or not. For people with diabetes, physical fitness may lead to several positive changes, including:1

Execise and type 2 diabetes

When combined with diet changes, exercise can even help some people prevent type 2 diabetes if they currently have prediabetes (metabolic syndrome). Even people who have had diabetes for years or several complications from diabetes will be rewarded for being more active.

Before you start exercising

Anyone with diabetes who has been completely inactive should talk with their doctor before starting to build regular exercise into their day. Your doctor will probably encourage you to be more active but may have some precautions, such as:1

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  • People with diabetic retinopathy may need to avoid strenuous weight lifting or extreme forms of exercise since dramatic increases in blood pressure can lead to bleeding in the eye.
  • People with peripheral neuropathy or other foot issues may need to avoid running or even walking, but choose swimming, biking, or rowing instead.
  • All people with diabetes should wear shoes that fit well and protect the feet.
  • Drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise to prevent dehydration. Dehydration can upset blood sugar levels.

Most people with type 2 diabetes who want to engage in low-intensity physical activity, such as walking, will not need a pre-exercise exam. However, the older you are and the more health complications you have, the more important it is to see your doctor first.

Questions to ask your doctor about exercising with diabetes include:1

  • How many minutes of exercise per week do you recommend?
  • How hard should I work out?
  • Is there anything I should avoid doing?
  • How will exercise impact my blood sugar?
  • Are there certain times that it is better to exercise if I use insulin?
  • What are some signs that my blood sugar is too low or my body is too stressed?
  • Do you have any recommendations for shoes?

Asking these questions ahead of time will help you better manage your blood sugar while exercising.

Three basic types of exercise

There are 3 basic types of exercise, and you should get a mix of all 3 over the course of a week. The 3 types include:1

  • Weight-bearing, which is also called resistance training
  • Aerobic, which is also called endurance training
  • Flexibility

Each type of exercise offers slightly different health benefits. Weight-bearing exercises build muscle and strength. Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and lungs and improves circulation. Flexibility training can help prevent injury, keep you limber, and help relieve pain.

Lifting weights is an example of a weight-bearing exercise. Aerobic exercise gets the heart pumping and includes walking, biking, swimming, and rowing. Flexibility exercises include stretching, yoga, and pilates.

Some exercise provides more than one benefit. For example, yoga and Tai Chi can both build muscle and improve flexibility. Water aerobics can be both aerobic and strength training. Dancing can be aerobic and help with balance.

An example of the type of exercise routine your doctor may recommend is 10 minutes of stretching or light weight-lifting followed by 20 minutes of walking. If you have not exercised in a while, you may need to build up to that. Once you become comfortable with this amount of exercise, you should gradually increase the times.

One important tip about exercise: Start slowly and build up your strength and endurance slowly so you will want to stick with your new exercise routine.