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April 19, 2019 Physical activity

If you're living with diabetes—especially type 2 diabetes—regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to lower your blood sugar. Increased physical activity can work just as effectively as some medications, with fewer side effects.

If you're at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, regular exercise can help delay or even prevent diabetes from developing.

Strive to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate-to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week (e.g. 30 minutes, five days a week) and resistance exercises (like lifting weights) two to three times a week.

Physical activity

Physical activity is any form of movement that causes your body to burn calories. This can be walking, gardening, cleaning and many other activities you already do. Daily physical activity is important. Low physical fitness is as strong a risk factor for dying as smoking is.

Avoid long periods of sitting by getting up every 20 to 30 minutes to stand or move around. Adding more physical activity to your day is one of the most important things you can do to help manage your diabetes and improve your health.

Benefits of physical activity

Regular physical activity, along with eating healthy and controlling your weight, can reduce your risk of developing diabetes complications such as heart disease and stroke.

Regular physical activity also helps:

  • prevent sugar from building up in your blood
  • lower your blood pressure (since your muscles use sugar for energy)
  • reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes

Before you get started

Before starting a new exercise routine, be prepared:

  • If you've been inactive for a while, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program that's more difficult than brisk walking 
  • If you live with type 1 diabetes, speak to your doctor reducing the risk of low blood sugar during and after exercise
  • Wear comfortable, proper-fitting shoes, and your MedicAlert® bracelet or necklace
  • Carry a fast-acting carbohydrate with you in case you need to treat low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), e.g. glucose tablets or Life Savers®
  • If you take insulin or medications that increase the release of insulin, monitor your blood sugar before, during and many hours after your activity to see how it affects your blood sugar levels
  • If you are short of breath or have chest pain, speak to your doctor

Types of physical activity

Both aerobic and resistance exercise are important for people living with diabetes. 

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is continuous movement (such as walking, bicycling or jogging) that raises your heart rate and breathing. Benefits of aerobic exercise include:

  • improved fitness, health and body composition
  • reduced complications of diabetes such as lowered risk of heart disease
  • improved diabetes, including blood sugar, blood fats, and blood pressure

Aim for 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. You may have to start slowly, with as little as five to 10 minutes of exercise per day, gradually building up to your goal.

The good news is that multiple, shorter exercise sessions of at least 10 minutes each can be as useful as a single longer session of the same intensity.

Interval aerobic training

Interval training involves short periods of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running or cycling, alternating with short recovery periods at low-to-moderate intensity or rest from 30 seconds to 3 minutes each.

Interval training is an effective way to increase your fitness level if you have type 2 diabetes, or to lower your risk of low blood sugar if you have type 1 diabetes.

Resistance exercise

Resistance exercise involves brief repetitive exercises with weights, weight machines, resistance bands or your own body weight to build muscle and strength. Benefits of resistance exercise include:

  • maintaining or increasing lean muscle
  • burning calories at rest throughout the day
  • weight control and diabetes management (especially as we age)

Aim to do resistance exercises 2 to 3 times per week. If you're beginning resistance exercise for the first time, you should get some instruction from a qualified exercise specialist, a diabetes educator or exercise resource (such as a video or brochure).

The key is to start slowly and build your way up.

Get the support you need

Physical activity and diabetes can be a complex issue. If you need help and/or advice on how to become physically active, you can ask your doctor or a member of your diabetes health-care team for support that's right for you.

Other resources on physical activity

Follow Diabetes Canada’s recommendations and step-by-step instructions for aerobic and resistance exercises.