Diabetes and exercise

Wondering why physical activity is so important?

Regular activity is a key part of managing diabetes along with proper meal planning, taking medications as prescribed, and stress management. When you are active, your cells become more sensitive to insulin so it can work more efficiently. Your cells also remove glucose from the blood using a mechanism totally separate from insulin during exercise. So, exercising consistently can lower blood glucose and improve your HbA1C. When you lower your HbA1C, you may be able to take fewer diabetes pills or less insulin. Physical activity is also important for your overall well-being, and can help with many other health conditions.

Benefits of Regular physical activity:

  • lowers blood pressure and cholesterol
  • lowers your risk for heart disease and stroke
  • burns calories to help you lose or maintain weight
  • increases your energy for daily activities
  • helps you sleep better
  • relieves stress
  • strengthens your heart and improves your blood circulation
  • strengthens your muscles and bones
  • keeps your joints flexible
  • improves your balance to prevent falls
  • reduces symptoms of depression and improves quality of life

You’ll see these benefits even if you haven't been very active before.

What We Recommend

Two types of physical activity are most important for managing diabetes: aerobic exercise and strength training.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise helps your body use insulin better. It makes your heart and bones strong, relieves stress, improves blood circulation, and reduces your risk for heart disease by lowering blood glucose and blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels.

We Recommend: Aiming for 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic exercise at least 5 days a week or a total of 150 minutes per week. Spread your activity out over at least 3 days during the week and try not to go more than 2 days in a row without exercising.

Note: Moderate intensity means that you are working hard enough that you can talk, but not sing, during the activity. Vigorous intensity means you cannot say more than a few words without pausing for a breath during the activity.

Get Started

If you haven't been very active recently, you can start out with 5 or 10 minutes a day. Then, increase your activity sessions by a few minutes each week. Over time, you'll see your fitness improve, and you'll find that you're able to do more. If you are just starting out, you may want to check out our starting walking plan.

Find the Time

If your busy schedule doesn't allow you to exercise for a 30-minute period during the day, you have the option to break it up into bouts of 10 minutes or more. Research has shown that the health benefits are similar when you do this!

For example, you might take a brisk 10-minute walk after each meal. Or you could try doing 15 minutes of aerobics in the morning before work and another 15 minutes when you get home. If you are trying to lose weight and keep it off, most people need to do closer to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise per day.

Below are some examples of aerobic activities:

  • Brisk walking
  • Bicycling/Stationary cycling indoors
  • Dancing
  • Low-impact aerobics
  • Swimming or water aerobics
  • Playing tennis
  • Stair climbing
  • Jogging/Running
  • Hiking
  • Rowing
  • Moderate-to-heavy gardening


Strength Training

Strength training (also called resistance training) makes your body more sensitive to insulin and can lower blood glucose. It helps to maintain and build strong muscles and bones, reducing your risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn – even when your body is at rest. Preventing muscle loss by strength training is also the key to maintaining an independent lifestyle as you age. We Recommend: doing some type of strength training at least 2 times per week in addition to aerobic activity.

Below are examples of strength training activities:

  • Weight machines or free weights at the gym
  • Using resistance bands
  • Lifting light weights or objects like canned goods or water bottles at home
  • Calisthenics or exercises that use your own body weight to work your muscles (examples are pushups, sit ups, squats, lunges, wall-sits and planks)
  • Classes that involve strength training
  • Other activities that build and keep muscle like heavy gardening

*There are other types of activity that you can add to your fitness routine.


Be More Active Throughout the Day

In addition to planned aerobic exercise and strength training, there are many chances to be active throughout the day. Remember – moving more can help keep your blood glucose levels on target and also burn more calories! More and more research is finding that sitting too much for long periods of time is harmful to our health especially related to heart health, mental health and increased risk for becoming disabled.

Just getting up once every 30 minutes to stretch or walk around the house or workplace is better than sitting for hours on end. Take every chance you can to get up and move. Wearing a pedometer will track your steps and may help you stay on track with daily activity.

Here are just a few ways you can do it:

At Work

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever you can
  • Get up once every 30 minutes while you are at work and take a quick walk around your building
  • Stand up and stretch whenever you can
  • Take a walk around your building during your lunch break
  • Use a speaker or mobile phone so you can walk  around your office during breaks
  • Try some chair exercises during the day while at your desk

At Home

  • Doing housework such as vacuuming, dusting, or washing dishes counts
  • Even yard work such as mowing the lawn or raking leaves counts too 
  • Play with the kids – play catch or throw the Frisbee around
  • Walk in place during the commercials of your favorite television show
  • Make more trips when carrying groceries or laundry to get more steps in
  • Walk around the house or up and down stairs while you talk on the phone
  • Take the dog for a walk around the block

While You're Out and About

  • Park at the far end of the shopping center lot and walk to the store
  • Walk to the store and take the longer route to increase your steps
  • Do a lap or two around the perimeter of the store before shopping 
  • If you are at the airport and waiting for a flight, walk through the terminal
  • When on a road trip, stop often to stretch and walk around