The Best Strength Training Exercises for People with Diabetes

If you have diabetes, increasing your strength is a surefire way to manage your blood sugar better.

a woman doing strength training
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While a strength training routine can help nearly everyone get healthier, it can significantly benefit people with type 2 diabetes, about 10% of Americans, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Strength training offers many health benefits for people with diabetes, including improved glucose control and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease," explains Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, a registered dietitian and author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet. Furthermore, according to the CDC, you can reap the benefits with only two days of strength training per week when combined with at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity.

Read on to learn more about this effective form of exercise and how it can help manage diabetes. Plus, we share some of the best strength training exercises for people with diabetes to stabilize their blood sugar and boost cardiovascular health.

What Is Strength Training?

Strength training (also called resistance training) is essential to overall fitness. According to Penn State University, it's a type of exercise that causes your muscles to contract against external resistance for increased muscle mass, stronger bones, improved joint flexibility and more. Examples of strength training exercises include pullups, pushups, squats, deadlifts, lunges, planks, biceps curls and triceps extensions, among others. As for the external resistance, you can use free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, cables, medicine balls or even your body weight.

How Strength Training Helps Manage Diabetes

Helps Lower Blood Sugar Levels

"Strength training helps lower and regulate blood sugar levels. Physical activity, in general, helps with blood sugar levels because you use these sugars to fuel your activity," states Rachel MacPherson, CPT, an ACE-certified personal trainer with Garage Gym Reviews. "Strength training specifically is a great choice for people with diabetes because you use more muscles. This helps with calorie burn and increasing muscle mass, improving your daily metabolism, including blood sugar metabolism." For example, a meta-analysis review published in Diabetes Therapy in 2017 concluded that older type 2 diabetes patients experienced improved glycemic control and muscle strength following a strength training program.

Improves Insulin Response

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Diabetes Research found that a regular strength training program can substantially improve insulin response in men. For example, men who reported no strength training had roughly 2.5 times higher risk of being insulin resistant than their counterparts who reported moderate or high levels of strength training. "Regular strength training can help reduce fasting blood sugar levels, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce body fat levels, and increase lean muscle mass," Palinski-Wade explains.

Helps Prevent Bone Loss

Researchers from the Diabetes Therapy review also noted that high-intensity strength training could be an effective strategy for preventing sarcopenia and osteoporosis by helping to maintain muscle mass and bone density as you age. "Bone health is vital for those living with diabetes, since diabetes significantly increases the risk of developing osteoporosis," says Palinski-Wade.

Supports Healthy Weight Loss

Strength training helps support healthy weight loss by building lean muscle tissue that reduces your total body fat percentage—a critical risk factor for people with diabetes. Also, having more muscle mass boosts your metabolism by helping your body burn fat for energy instead of muscle. These factors are critical for managing diabetes, maintaining strength and a healthy weight.

"Strength training helps support a healthier weight, which can improve blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels," explains Palinski-Wade. "All this helps reduce the risk of developing complications associated with diabetes, such as heart disease, stroke and kidney damage."

Best Strength Training Exercises for Diabetes

1. Squats

Whether using free weights, a machine or your body weight, squats are an effective exercise for those with diabetes since "squats work multiple muscle groups at once, helping you use more glycogen and burn more calories," says MacPherson. Squats are a compound movement that targets several muscle groups in your lower body.

"Squats are beneficial for diabetes, as they target multiple muscle groups and help to improve overall body strength," says Palinski-Wade. "They also help to increase flexibility and balance, which is especially important for people with diabetes who may be at risk of falls or injuries due to neuropathy."

2. Walking Lunges

Another lower body exercise, walking lunges are fantastic for strengthening the glutes and quads to improve overall strength and mobility. MacPherson says, "Walking lunges help burn calories and build muscle as they increase your heart rate more than other body-weight movements.

Walking lunges can also make you more stable, an important consideration for those with diabetes. "Walking lunges help improve balance, which is crucial for those with diabetes who may experience numbness in the feet and have an increased risk of falls," explains Palinski-Wade.

3. Pushups

This classic movement has been a staple in strength training programs for years. That's because pushups target multiple upper body areas, including the chest, shoulders and triceps. This helps those with diabetes build muscle mass and reduce body fat.

"Pushups are another great exercise for people with diabetes, as they target the chest, shoulders and triceps," says Palinski-Wade. "Regular pushups can help to improve overall strength and reduce the risk of injury due to weakened muscles."

4. Pullups / Lat Pulldowns

Pullups are an excellent way to strengthen the upper body, including your back and arms. However, they can be challenging to execute. If you can't do pullups with proper form, you can use a lat pulldown machine instead to reap the same benefits as pullups. "Lat pulldowns are an effective way to strengthen the back muscles, which is important for improving posture and reducing pain from complications such as nerve damage due to diabetes," explains Palinski-Wade. According to the CDC, nerve damage, particularly in your hands, feet, legs and arms, is a condition nearly half of the people with diabetes experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How often should you exercise if you have diabetes?

While there's no one-size-fits-all approach to exercising with diabetes, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week (or any combination of the two) plus two days of strength training activities.

2. Does lifting weights reverse diabetes?

Lifting weights, or any type of strength training, will not reverse diabetes. "While strength training can improve overall health and quality of life for those living with diabetes, it will not alone reverse insulin resistance," says Palinski-Wade.

3. What exercises should you avoid if you have diabetes?

For those living with diabetes, certain exercises should be avoided or modified to prevent injury. "High-impact activities, such as running, jumping and contact sports, can increase the risk of foot injuries due to numbness and other complications and also increase the risk of injury for those who suffer from retinopathy," says Palinski-Wade.

Additionally, those with high blood pressure may want to avoid high-intensity activities, such as straining to lift heavy weights. Always consult a doctor or physical therapist to determine the safest and most effective exercises for managing diabetes.

4. Which is better for diabetes, cardio or strength training?

Both cardio and strength training exercises offer incredible health benefits for people with diabetes. Therefore, the ideal fitness program for managing diabetes should include a combination of cardio and strength training exercises. Ultimately, choosing a form of exercise that's safe, enjoyable and one you can remain consistent with will deliver the best results.

The Bottom Line

Strength training (or resistance training) can be an effective tool for people with diabetes to manage their condition by improving blood sugar control and boosting cardiovascular health. It can also improve insulin response, prevent bone loss and support healthy weight management. However, strength training alone isn't ideal for managing diabetes. Adopting other healthy lifestyle habits, such as a nutritious diet, cardio exercise, sleep and stress management (in tandem with strength training), is your best bet for managing diabetes and optimizing health.

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