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Diabetes and Exercise

Exercise is one of the best ways to help keep your diabetes under control. Many people say they feel better when they get regular exercise.

What exercise can do for you

Exercise is important for everyone. If you have diabetes, regular activity can make you feel better and help prevent complications. Research has shown that exercise offers many health benefits. They include:

  • Reducing your risk for stroke and heart disease

  • Lowering your blood pressure and blood glucose

  • Helping your body use insulin

  • Preventing or delaying diabetes-related problems

  • Raising your good cholesterol and lowering your bad cholesterol

  • Keeping your weight down

  • Helping you sleep better

  • Preventing falls and improving memory in older adults

  • Increasing your endurance and stamina

  • Enhancing your sense of confidence and well-being

You can be active

If you haven’t been active, talk with your healthcare team before you begin. People with diabetes and eye or foot problems may need to change certain exercises. Or not do some types of exercise. Start out slowly. Try adding more movement to your daily routine. Every little bit helps. No matter the exercise, make certain you wear safe, good-fitting shoes. Here are some suggestions:

  • Park your car farther from the store and walk.

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

  • Do some gardening.

  • Take a walk with family, friends, or your pet.

  • Dance

Other types of exercise that are good for people with diabetes include swimming, aerobics, bicycling, skating, tennis, and basketball. These activities work your large muscles, raise your heart rate, and increase how much air your lungs can hold. These are important fitness goals.

Strength training exercises use hand weights, elastic bands, or weight machines. These exercises can help strengthen and build muscle. Stretching helps you stay flexible and prevents soreness.

As you get stronger and can do more, you can add a few extra minutes to your physical activity. If you have pain, stop your activity until the pain goes away. If it comes back, call your healthcare provider right away.

Do some type of physical activity each day. Aim for at least 150 minutes a week of exercise, spread at least 3 days of the week. Walking 10 or 20 minutes every day is better than 1 hour just once a week. Try not to go more than 30 minutes during the day without some movement or light physical activity.

Cautions about exercise with diabetes

If you have certain diabetes-related problems, don't do certain kinds of physical activity. Talk with your healthcare provider before doing exercise with heavy weights if you have blood vessel or eye problems. Also talk with your provider if your blood pressure is not under control. If you have nerve damage from diabetes, you may not be able to tell if you’ve injured your feet during exercise.

Always check your blood sugar before you exercise. This is especially true if you take insulin or certain medicines by mouth (oral). Physical activity can lower your blood glucose too much and lead to hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia can occur during exercise, after, or much later. Signs of hypoglycemia include:

  • Shakiness

  • Dizziness

  • Sweating

  • Hunger

  • Headache

  • Irritability

  • Pale skin color

  • Sudden moodiness or behavior changes

  • Clumsy or jerky movements

  • Trouble paying attention, or confusion

  • Tingling feelings around the mouth

Be careful about exercising if you have recently skipped a meal. If your blood glucose level is below 100, have a small snack first. Some high-intensity workouts such as weightlifting and competitive sports can cause you to make stress hormones. These hormones can raise your blood glucose levels. But most of the time, exercise causes blood glucose levels to drop.

Also don't exercise if your fasting blood glucose is higher than 250 and if you have ketones in your urine. This can increase your risk for ketoacidosis. This is a serious complication that needs attention right away. Ask your healthcare provider about the best times for you to exercise.

If you are using continuous glucose monitoring, be aware that your readings may not be reliable while you are exercising. They will need to be confirmed by finger-stick readings.

Another tip for exercise is to wear cotton socks and well-fitted, comfortable athletic shoes. After exercise, look closely at your feet, including between your toes, for signs of irritation, broken skin, blisters, or other injuries. Use a mirror to check the bottoms of your feet. If you have consistent redness or rubbing on an area of your foot, consider getting refitted for a different pair of athletic shoes.

Drink plenty of fluids during exercise. Dehydration can affect your blood glucose levels.

If you're having fun doing physical activities you really like, you'll be more likely to exercise each day. Some people find that doing various types of workouts and exercising with friends motivates them to keep their health goals.

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Robert Hurd MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2023
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