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Diabetes and Exercise

Exercise is one of the best ways to help keep diabetes under control, and 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 a list of health benefits, including:

  • Reducing your risk for stroke and heart disease

  • Lowering your blood pressure and blood glucose

  • Helping your body use insulin

  • Raising your good cholesterol and lowering your bad cholesterol

You can be active

If you haven’t been active, talk to your healthcare team before you begin. People with diabetes and eye or foot problems may need to avoid some types of exercise. Start out slowly. Try adding more movement to your daily routine. Every little bit helps. 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, basketball, or other sports. These activities work your large muscles, raise your heart rate, and increase your breathing capacity. These are important fitness goals.

Strength training exercises using hand weights, elastic bands, or weight machines can help strengthen and build muscle. Stretching helps with flexibility and preventing 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 returns, call your healthcare provider right away.

Do some type of physical activity each day. Walking 10 or 20 minutes every day is better than one hour just once a week. Try not to go more than 30 minutes without some movement or light physical activity.

Cautions about exercise with diabetes

If you have certain diabetes-related complications, ajvoid certain kinds of physical activity. Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider before doing exercise involving heavy weights if you have blood vessel or eye problems, or poorly controlled blood pressure. And, if you have nerve damage from diabetes, it may be difficult to tell if you’ve injured your feet during exercise.

Always check your blood sugar before you exercise, especially if you take insulin or certain oral medications. 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

  • Difficulty paying attention, or confusion

  • Tingling sensations around the mouth

Be cautious about exercising if you’ve recently skipped a meal. And if your blood glucose level is below 100, have a small snack first. If your blood glucose is higher than 300, physical activity might drive it higher. Wait until your glucose level is lower before exercising. Also, avoid exercising if your fasting blood glucose is higher than 250 and if you have ketones in your urine. Ask your healthcare provider about the best times for you to exercise.

Another tip for exercise is to wear cotton socks and well-fitted, comfortable, athletic shoes. After exercise, be sure to look closely at your feet for signs of irritation, broken skin, blisters, or other injuries.

Be sure to 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.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
  • Hurd, Robert, MD