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Exercise & activity

Almost everyone, whether or not they have diabetes, benefits from regular exercise. Well-known health benefits include weight loss, stronger bones, improved blood pressure control, lower rates of heart disease and cancer as well as increased energy levels. Regular exercise has special advantages if you have diabetes. Regular physical activity improves your body’s sensitivity to insulin and helps manage your blood sugar levels.

Exercise is a form of physical activity that is done at enough intensity to improve your fitness. Resistance training, brisk walking, cycling, and jogging are examples of exercise. As exercise is more challenging than just accumulating physical activity through your day, it often needs some planning, a certain level of ability, and a little more effort.

Benefits of exercise

While regular exercise often requires a commitment of both time and energy, the benefits of exercise are greater than that of general physical activity.

What are the immediate benefits?

Exercise (such as brisk walking or resistance training) uses more muscles at greater intensity, so more energy is used up. This allows you to control your blood sugar more easily.

What are the benefits if I keep at it?

Over the long term, exercise can result in:

  • Improved fitness and body composition.
  • Reduced complications of diabetes such as lowered risk of heart disease.
  • Improved diabetes, including blood sugar, blood fats, and blood pressure.
  • Improved overall fitness and health.

You can enjoy many things in life more easily.

What kind of activity is best?

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

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is continuous exercise such as walking, bicycling or jogging that elevates breathing and heart rate.

Resistance exercise

Resistance exercise involves brief repetitive exercises with weights, weight machines, resistance bands or one’s own body weight to build muscle strength. If you decide to begin resistance exercise, you should first get some instruction from a qualified exercise specialist, a diabetes educator or exercise resource (such as a video or brochure) and start slowly.

Interval training

Interval training involves short periods of vigorous exercise such as running or cycling, alternating with 30 second to 3 minute recovery periods at low-to-moderate intensity or, rest.

Safety first

  • If you have been inactive for some time, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program that is more strenuous than brisk walking.
  • Make sure you wear comfortable, proper-fitting shoes.
  • Wear your MedicAlert® bracelet or necklace.
  • Listen to your body. Speak to your doctor if you are very short of breath or have chest pain.
  • If you take insulin or medications that increase insulin levels, monitor your blood sugar before, during and many hours after your activity to see how it affects your blood sugar levels.
  • Carry some form of fast-acting carbohydrate with you in case you need to treat low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), for example, glucose tablets or Life Savers®.
  • If you live with type 1 diabetes, speak to your health-care provider about additional strategies to reduce the risk of hypoglycemia during and after exercise.

How much is enough?

Your goal should be to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week, (e.g. 30 minutes, 5 days a week).

You may have to start slowly, with as little as 5 to 10 minutes of exercise per day, gradually building up to your goal. The good news, though, is that multiple, shorter exercise sessions of at least 10 minutes, adding up to 90-140 minutes per week, can have some benefits for people with diabetes.

As you begin your exercise program and continue to build on it, be sure that you have no more than 2 consecutive days without exercise. If you are able and when you are ready, try adding resistance exercises like lifting weights 2-3 times a week.

When you add resistance exercise, you should get some help from a qualified exercise specialist.

Note: You may consider interval training to increase improvements in fitness levels for type 2 diabetes, and to lower the risk of hypoglycemia in type 1 diabetes. Speak with your healthcare provider or qualified exercise specialist if you plan to start interval training.

Physical activity and diabetes

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Exercise tips and tutorials

The following resources contain even more info on exercising with diabetes.

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