What You Need to Know About Physical Activity & Diabetes

Get up, get moving—and be safe.

diabetes exercises
Photo: Getty / kali9

Staying active is one of the best things people with diabetes can do to keep blood sugars in check, energy levels balanced, moods boosted and overall health outcomes positive. Understanding how your body reacts to activity can be helpful to keep you feeling your best before, during and after exercise. Here's what happens when you exercise, plus tips on how to start moving and keep moving.

How does activity affect blood sugars?

"Physical activity allows muscles to take up glucose from the bloodstream without the need for insulin," says Sheri R. Colberg, Ph.D., professor emerita with Old Dominion University. What's more, any insulin you do have in your body will also work better after exercise, she says: "That means you can get by with less of it."

The exercise effect is particularly powerful: one systematic review and meta-analysis, published in the Diabetes & Metabolism Journal, found that in people with type 2 diabetes, exercise improved insulin sensitivity (how effective your cells are at utilizing insulin) up to 72 hours after the activity. Ultimately, when you commit to a regular exercise routine, you may be able to manage your condition with lower doses of medication—or none at all. Here's how to get going!

Exercise Tips for Diabetes

This all sounds great, right? The answer may be "Yes!" for some, but not everyone is naturally inclined to love exercise. If you fit into the camp of I don't have time/It's uncomfortable/I haven't a clue what to do, then know that starting a routine (and sticking to it) is actually easier than you might think. Here's what you need to know about exercising with diabetes:

Dip your toe in—don't jump

Exercise is not something you have to embrace at full speed: it's OK—and recommended—to start slowly, especially if you've been inactive in the past. Rather than decide you're going to run five mornings a week or turn on Zumba videos every afternoon, start lighter. Colberg recommends light to moderate aerobic activity three days per week, with no more than two rest days between workout days. This might be taking a physically distanced walk around your neighborhood with a friend, riding your bike on a beautiful day, or swimming in a pool. Afterward, do some light stretches, which will help you improve your flexibility.

Remember: it's OK if you're not dripping with sweat after your activity. Exercising vigorously is not guaranteed to make a good workout, and it can backfire. "Starting out too hard can be demotivating and also lead to injury, which can keep you sidelined," says Colberg.

Add strength

Building muscle means you can lift that heavy box off the shelf, and it may give you new arm definition, but more importantly, a strength routine will improve diabetes management. Fit this in two times per week. "Maintaining muscle mass helps your body process and store carbohydrates more effectively," says Colberg. Resistance training can be done with weights (such as lunges or an overhead press) or using your own body weight (such as squats or pushups), and many moves will also help you work on your balance. The app 7 Minute Workout is a really good (and quick!) introduction to body-weight exercise. Each exercise is timed, so you can perform it at your own pace.

See More: 15-Minute Strength Workout for Diabetes

Stay home

Many gyms aren't open now, due to COVID-19, plus maybe you just don't feel comfortable going for a variety of reasons. That's completely OK. "Versions of most activities can be done from home, including walking locally in your neighborhood and doing resistance exercises using your own body weight or household items," says Colberg. For example, cans of food, water jugs, a case of sparkling water, or resistance bands (which can be purchased inexpensively online) can be used in lieu of traditional weights.

Likewise, you don't need to spend a lot of money hiring a personal trainer, either, says Colberg. If you're unsure about how to put together resistance exercises or use the resistance bands you bought, search on YouTube. You can even refine your search further to find workouts specifically catering to people with diabetes. You'll find a ton of videos by qualified professionals (make sure they're a certified personal trainer) who provide instruction based on your experience level.

Check your blood glucose regularly

Your blood sugar will respond in different ways, depending on the activity you're doing and time of day, says Colberg. "It can be motivating to see how much impact being active can have, but checking also allows you to avoid having your blood glucose go too low or too high from being active," she says. Check your glucose before exercise and then again within an hour of stopping.

Read More: The Best Fitness Foods: What to Eat Before, During and After a Workout

Keep moving

Exercise comes with the assumption that it's something you do wearing athleisure and that makes your muscles beg for mercy. Not so! "Every bit of physical movement you do during the day counts as your daily total, so be as active as you can all day long," says Colberg. That might mean walking to do an errand, riding a bike to an outdoor restaurant, or making time for window shopping on foot. That can even mean using a push mower to cut the grass in your yard, raking leaves outside or spending a Saturday morning gardening. Not only does it bump up your calorie burn, but you'll make it through your day high on energy.

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