Physical activity is important when you have diabetes. Diabetic foot pain or flexibility problems don't need to keep you from exercising. Grab a chair and take a seat for these simple stretches, low-impact strength exercises, and cardio moves.

Irene Lewis-McCormick, M.S., CSCS
September 28, 2018

Chair Exercises

When you have diabetes, including physical activity each day is important for controlling blood glucose and blood pressure and maintaining a healthy weight. Fortunately, you don't have to leave your chair to get the benefits of exercise.

Will I see results?
Movements you can do from a sturdy chair improve the ability of your heart and lungs to work together to supply oxygen to your body. Increasing your activity level helps you burn more calories and use insulin (produced by your body or taken as medication) more effectively.

Do I need exercise equipment?
For all of the following exercises, you'll need a sturdy chair. For the strength exercises, you'll need a 2- to 5-pound weight in each hand. If you don't have hand weights, use two full cans of food from the pantry.

For a low-intensity workout, start with the flexibility exercises and do either the cardio or the strength exercises, but not both. Extend the length of time for each exercise to 3-5 minutes and concentrate on doing all of the movements slowly. For a more intense workout, do all of the exercises in the following order, which should take 30-45 minutes. Get started now -- ready, sit, go!

Start with Proper Posture

Follow these exercise tips before starting the seated cardio workout:

  • Be sure to use a sturdy chair with a high back (no stools or folding chairs). Sit on the edge of the chair, and hold on to the side of the seat with one or both hands.
  • Keep your back straight. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed, dropped down, and away from your ears.
  • Keep your chin parallel with the floor. Tighten or flex your abdominal muscles during every exercise movement to protect your lower back.
  • If you're stable and comfortable with the movements, feel free to move your arms to increase the intensity of your workout.

Flexibility Exercise: Seated Forward Bend

Always start with the flexibility exercises for a short workout or for a warm-up. To warm your body and enhance the stretches, you may want to put on a light jacket that's easy for you to move in.

How to do the stretch:
1. With legs wide, slowly curl your spine forward, dropping your torso toward your thighs.

2. Allow your head to relax and your hands to reach down toward your feet. Hold for 30-45 seconds and slowly rise back up.

Flexibility Exercise: Knee to Chest

How to do the stretch:
1. Grasp the back of your right knee and raise it toward your torso.

2. Maintain a tall and straight seated posture. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat with your other leg.

Flexibility Exercise: Ankle Rotations

How to do the stretch:
From a seated position, rest your ankle on the opposite knee. Circle your ankle right and left, about 10 seconds in each direction. Repeat with your other ankle.

Tip: You can also point and flex your toes for additional stretching and strengthening of your ankles.

Flexibility Exercise: Sit and Reach

How to do the stretch:
1. With knees together and your back tall and lifted, extend one arm straight up toward the ceiling.

2. Stretch along your torso, reaching as high as possible with one hand.

3. Look up at your hand for an added stretch through the neck and shoulders. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then switch to the other side. Grip the chair seat for balance, if necessary.

Flexibility Exercise: Extended Arms and Legs

How to do the stretch:
1. Sit on the front edge of your chair. Angle your body so your right leg has the freedom to extend behind you, keeping it as straight as possible. For stability, rest your left foot on the floor.

2. Bring the arms up to shoulder height while keeping the rib cage and abdominal muscles pulled down and tight.

3. Gaze over you front middle fingers and take 3-5 deep breaths.

Change positions by facing the opposite direction and extending your left leg behind you.

Cardio Exercise: Seated Tap Dance

If you move vigorously enough for 25-30 minutes while seated, you may sweat a little. But even a no-sweat pace benefits your body. The following moves will improve how your heart and lungs work together.

How to do the workout:
1. From a seated position, start with knees bent and toes resting lightly on the ground. Extend one leg and gently tap that heel to the ground.

2. Then point the toes and tap them to the ground. Flex the foot and tap the heel to the ground again, then return leg to starting position.

Repeat with the opposite leg and continue alternating legs as you mimic tap dancing for 3-5 minutes. Concentrate on moving each ankle through its range of motion as you tap.

Cardio Exercise: Kick and Clap

How to do the workout:
Extend one leg forward in a smooth, controlled kick while clapping your hands about shoulder height. Concentrate on using your thigh muscles.

Repeat with the opposite leg and continue alternating legs for 3-5 minutes.

Cardio Exercise: Chair Charleston

How to do the workout:
1. Place your hips on the edge of the chair, and alternate the right and left legs forward and back. At the same time, bend your arms at the elbows and swing them back and forth.

2. Like a 1920s flapper, wiggle your fingers and change the position of your arms as you move through this dance sequence.

Continue chair dancing for 3-5 minutes.

Cardio Exercise: Tap and Reach

How to do the workout:
Reach up diagonally with one arm as you extend the leg on the same side in the opposite direction. Stretch your fingertips toward the ceiling and lengthen the arm while you stretch the leg. Concentrate on smooth, controlled movements and forming a straight line from your fingertips to your toes.

Alternate sides while reaching and extending for 3-5 minutes.

Cardio Exercise: Windshield Wipers

How to do the workout:
1. Gently swivel both legs to one side while turning your upper body in the opposite direction. Keep your hands (the "windshield wipers") at shoulder level with elbows bent.

2. Swivel your lower body and upper body in opposite directions. Continue to alternate sides. Tighten your abdominal muscles to protect your back as you swivel.

Continue the exercise for 3-5 minutes.

For a low-intensity workout, stop here and congratulate yourself. For a longer, more intense workout, continue to the next slide.

Strength Exercise: Bicep Curls

If you'd like a longer workout or to increase the intensity, continue with the following strength exercises. Use a 2- to 5-pound weight in each hand. If you don't have dumbbells, use two full cans of food from the pantry. Concentrate on smooth, controlled movements to work your muscles through their range of motion

How to do the workout:
1. Hold one weight in each hand, elbows at your sides, and flex your arms toward your shoulders for a biceps curl. Keep your wrists straight.

2. Slowly lower arms and repeat. Keep your elbows pointed toward the floor, and use your bicep muscles to control the movements. Count 1, 2 as you lift up; 2, 1 as you lower down. Do not grip the weights too tightly, and remember to breathe as you perform the exercises.

Do 15-20 repetitions.

Strength Exercise: Tricep Press

How to do the workout:
1. With a weight in one hand, extend the arm in front of your body at shoulder height. Support the elbow with the other hand.

2. Move the weight up and back toward your shoulder, focusing on the tricep muscle on the back of your arm. Slowly lower the weight to the starting position. Count 1, 2 as you raise the hand; 2, 1 as you lower it.

Repeat with the other arm. Do 15-20 repetitions with each arm.

Strength Exercise: Shoulder Raises

How to do the workout:
1. With a weight in each hand, extend your arms toward the floor with palms facing in.

2. Gently bring your arms out and up, raising your hands to about shoulder height to a count of 1, 2. Then slowly lower hands to a count of 2, 1. Be sure not to lift too high; keep your shoulders down and relaxed, with your neck straight and your chin parallel to the floor.

Do 15-20 repetitions.

Strength Exercise: Kick and Contract

How to do the workout:
From the front edge of the chair, extend your legs from the hip joints. Try to sit tall with your torso lifted as you flex the thigh muscles. If possible, raise the knee of the extended leg higher than the knee of the bent leg. Repeat with the opposite leg.

Continue kicking, alternating legs, for 3-5 minutes.

Strength Exercise: Hip and Thigh Toner

How to do the workout:
1. Hold on to the sides of the chair and extend your legs in front of your body with your feet flat on the floor.

2. Open your legs in a V shape and touch your heels to the floor, using the muscles in your inner thighs and outer hips. Focus also on pointing and flexing your feet through the ankle joints.

Repeat 15-20 times.

Tip: It may be helpful to lean slightly back in the chair. Be sure to keep your abdominal muscles tight and contracted to support your lower back. Place a small pillow under your lower back for additional support, if necessary.