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Exercise for Diabetics: Better Health Through Physical Activity

Written by: Content Team



Time to read 8 min

Diabetes management leaves many people feeling drained and unable to stay physically active, which is too bad since exercise is a wonderful way to improve health outcomes for diabetes patients.

In this guide, you’ll learn all about exercise for diabetes patients and how to incorporate it into your daily schedule. Plus, we’ll go over the amazing benefits of physical activity and ways to keep yourself motivated.

The Best Exercises for Diabetics

Becoming more physically active can seem challenging at first if it’s something you’re not used to. However, it’s good to remember that moving more can help you improve your blood sugar levels, as well as help with other facets of your daily life.

There are many ways to improve your level of physical activity and build your muscle mass without hitting the gym every day. You can start with 20 minutes of daily mild to moderate-intensity exercise and go up from there.

Here are the top exercise for diabetics that can give you the benefits of working out while offering amazing blood glucose control:

Brisk Walking

Walking for exercise
Walking for exercise. Source: DepositPhotos

Walking doesn’t require a gym membership, fancy workout gear, or even a lot of time. It has been linked in studies to improved HbA1c test results, lower blood pressure, and better weight management for people with type 2 diabetes.

Walking is as easy as putting on a pair of comfortable shoes and moving for 30 minutes to an hour daily.


Aside from being a lot of fun, aerobic dance workouts, like Zumba, are a great form of exercise. They allow you to move most major muscle groups in a fast-paced, casual environment. 

This has a positive psychological impact on people with type 2 diabetes and offers the benefits of aerobic exercise like weight management and increased insulin sensitivity.


Cycling is another great aerobic exercise that allows you to move without having a high impact on your lower joints. This is especially helpful since many people with type 2 diabetes also struggle with arthritis.

You can take up cycling by using a bike to run errands near your home and go further. If you live somewhere that’s not bike-friendly, a stationary bike is a wonderful way to exercise daily.

Tai Chi

Couple exercise Tai Chi
Couple exercise Tai Chi. Source: DepositPhotos

For a slower-paced, stress-reducing workout, you can turn to Tai Chi. It’s an ancient form of exercise originating in China, focusing on improving balance through calculated movement of the whole body.

In a meta analysis by the Journal of Diabetes Research, it was found that Tai Chi balance exercises helped patients with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar and HbA1c levels better. There’s also lots of anecdotal evidence about it helping reduce the peripheral neuropathy many T2DM patients face.


Weightlifting is a form of resistance exercise touted by the American Diabetes Association for its benefits in building muscle mass. The higher your muscle mass, the more calories your body will burn.

You can use household objects, free weights, or exercise machines at the gym to do your weightlifting workouts. Could you make sure you consult with a licensed trainer to know the correct form for each exercise? This should help you avoid muscle injury and unnecessary strain on your back.

Resistance Training Using Bands

Resistance exercise.
Resistance exercise. Source: DepositPhotos

Using elasticated bands with multiple strengths is another form of resistance exercise. They can help you work out major muscles in your legs and arms, perform core resistance exercises, build muscle strength, as well as moderately control your blood sugar.


The king of low-impact exercises for anyone struggling with limited mobility is swimming. Aside from being easy on the joints, it also offers the same blood glucose management and other health benefits such as regular exercise.

For patients who are overweight or obese, water-based exercise can be the perfect gateway to move more without getting worn out easily. Working out in temperature-controlled pools can also be a great way to maintain your exercise routine all year.


Yoga can be an excellent moderate intensity physical activity for lowering high blood glucose levels. Because of its calming effects, it can help with stress reduction, which in turn reflects positively on your HbA1c tests and your regular glucose monitoring.

The Difference Between Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

Exercise can be categorized into aerobic and anaerobic based on how your muscles get their fuel. Here’s a breakdown of both types and how you can incorporate both into your workout routine:

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise comes from “aero,” which describes the presence of oxygen to burn the fuel (in this case, glucose and fat)  your body needs to move the muscles. Most exercises discussed above are aerobic, and their benefits for heart health, insulin sensitivity, and weight loss are plenty.

Walking, running, dancing, and swimming can be done within 30 minutes to one hour several times a week. You’ll notice your blood sugar levels decrease for the 24-hour following aerobic exercise.

Anaerobic Exercise

Anaerobic exercise happens when you exercise so fast that your body doesn’t have enough oxygen to burn fuel. It doesn’t just signify the absence of sufficient oxygen, it also uses up the complex carbohydrate called glycogen your body naturally stores in the muscles.

The breakdown of glycogen builds up lactic acid, which causes muscle soreness after vigorous-intensity workouts. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and weightlifting are examples of anaerobic exercise.

Unlike aerobic exercise, you might notice a slight spike in your blood sugar levels after anaerobic exercise. It only lasts for a limited time, about an hour, and is usually no cause for concern. The decrease in the body’s fat mass, increase in muscle mass, and higher insulin sensitivity should offset these spikes.

Make sure to give your body ample rest after anaerobic exercise, for at least a full day between sessions, so your muscles have time to recover.

Benefits of Physical Activity When You Have Diabetes

A woman exercising with her fitness instructor
A woman exercising with her fitness instructor. Source: DepositPhotos

We touched on the benefits of exercise briefly, but here’s a comprehensive look at what you can expect when you work out regularly if you have diabetes:

Improved Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin resistance is part of the Metabolic Syndrome that often comes with type 2 diabetes. Although its mechanism is still unclear to scientists, studies have found that exercise makes the body’s cells more sensitive to insulin.

It also decreases oxidative stress and reduces inflammation, which slows down the progression of type 2 diabetes, so it requires fewer medications and lowers the chance of it becoming insulin-dependent.

Weight Loss

People with type 2 diabetes who are overweight or obese can struggle with weight loss through diet only, especially if their diabetes is insulin-dependent. That’s because insulin signals the body to store extra glucose as fat.

If you have type 2 diabetes, increasing your level of physical activity can make weight loss more attainable and sustainable as your cells become more sensitive to insulin. This might encourage your health provider to adjust your medication so you aren’t as dependent on insulin.

Balanced Cholesterol Levels

Having high cholesterol levels is part of the Metabolic Syndrome experienced by many type 2 diabetes patients. This is a dangerous outcome since high low density lipoprotein (LDL, also known as bad cholesterol) can cause stiffening of the body’s blood vessels, which causes high blood pressure.

Exercise was found to decrease levels of LDL in the blood of people with type 2 diabetes. And although it doesn’t significantly improve levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL, good cholesterol), eating a balanced diet alongside exercise should improve those levels in the blood.

Increased Muscle Mass

Resistance training using weights, resistance bands, or your own body weight through calisthenics is an excellent way to improve your body’s muscle mass.

If you have type 2 diabetes, this has the added benefit of making your body burn more calories from glucose while you’re resting, which in turn allows you to use less medication for your condition.

What to Consider Before You Start Working Out

Here are a few important things to keep in mind before you start incorporating more physical activity into your daily routine:

If You Have Type 1 Diabetes

The biggest concern for people with type 1 diabetes is to prevent low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) when they work out. That’s because aerobic exercise uses up most of the glucose in your blood, and if you take your regular insulin dose, there’s a chance your brain might not have enough fuel.

So always keep a source of simple sugar on you whenever you exercise; this could be glucose tablets, hard candy, or a non-diet, sugary soda. If you feel faint, tired, or start to get blurry vision, sit down and consume the equivalent of 15 grams of sugar. This is about one glucose tablet, one piece of hard candy, or half a cup of sugary soda.

If you’re still feeling weak, take another 15 grams and stop your exercise until you’ve regained your strength.

For children with type 1 diabetes, it might not be easy to predict how active they’re going to be and plan their meals or insulin intake ahead of time. The parent or caregiver should stay in close proximity to their child and replenish their glucose intake every 30 minutes to prevent hypoglycemia.

If you have a high blood glucose reading before your workout, test your urine for ketones, and if you find any, delay any planned vigorous activity until your blood glucose levels are back to normal.

If You Have Type 2 Diabetes

The previous advice also applies to people with controlled type 2 diabetes. However, there are other considerations you should consider if you’re trying to become more active.

If you suffer from diabetic neuropathy in your feet, causing them to lose feeling, it’s important to be more cautious with your workout gear. Wear soft cotton socks and well-fitting shoes, and make sure your skin isn’t too dry or cracking before you start working out.

If you want to swim or do other aquatic exercises, using water shoes to protect your feet from injury in the pool is best.

After you’re done exercising, check your feet for any sores, blisters, or wounds. If you find any, disinfect them immediately and monitor them. If they don’t heal after two days, contact your doctor and let them know so they can schedule an appointment with you to monitor your condition.

How to Keep Yourself Motivated to Stay Active

Stay Motivated
Stay Motivated. Source: DepositPhotos

You’ve probably heard from many people that getting started is the easy part of becoming more physically active and that keeping up with it is the hardest part.

There is some truth to that, but it doesn’t have to be a bonafide challenge.

If you choose a form of exercise you like, you can maintain your workout routine and remain active. If you enjoy swimming more than running, you shouldn’t have to run because people say it’s good for you.

You don’t have to break the bank to start working out regularly. You can pick up some household items to work out with, walk, or do some callisthenics. Once you want to step up your exercise game, a gym membership or at-home workout gear might be a good investment.


Changing a completely sedentary lifestyle can be an uphill climb, but you don’t have to run a marathon within a month of incorporating physical activity into your routine. Start small, even by cleaning your house or doing yard work. There’s a chance the feel-good endorphins your body naturally produces will encourage you to do it again more frequently.

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