Cardiovascular Exercise Benefits for Diabetes

Swimming is a good cardio workout.
moodboard/Getty Images

Cardiovascular exercise can be especially beneficial for people with diabetes, Also known as cardio training or aerobic exercise, it raises a person’s heart rate to a higher than normal rate. Cardiovascular exercise can help burn extra glucose in the body and also decrease resistance to insulin, two effects that are good for diabetes control.

A good cardio exercise routine has many positive health effects, such as:

  • Improving muscle strength
  • Reducing body fat
  • Increasing energy levels
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Increasing the level of good cholesterol
  • Decreasing the risk of coronary artery disease
  • Strengthening the heart
  • Improving control of blood sugar levels
  • Improving circulation

The most important aspect of a cardio routine can also be the most difficult to achieve, that is, regularity. The maximum benefits of cardio training are realized when someone exercises on most days of the week. This is because the effects of the exercise aren’t permanent, although they are cumulative. For instance, research from Duke University suggests that when the exercise is done regularly for the long term, then it can significantly help the body process blood sugar levels, but if the exercise is only done once, then the effects only last for approximately one day.

Concerns for People With Diabetes

As always, people with diabetes should keep their healthcare providers well informed of anything that can affect their health. Exercise, especially, falls into this category. Talk to your doctor about what kind of exercise is best for you, and be sure to discuss any questions or concerns that arise as your exercise program progresses.

People with diabetes need to pay particular attention to their feet during exercise. The American Diabetes Association suggests using silica gel or air midsoles as well as polyester or cotton-polyester socks to prevent blisters and keep the feet dry.

A Cardio Training Program

A cardio training program aims to increase breathing capacity and improve overall health. Cardio work gets the heart beating faster, is rhythmic, and involves the large muscle groups, such as those in the legs. Generally, the program will start at a certain level, and then it will increase gradually as endurance is built.

Many types of physical activity can be categorized as cardio exercise, including:

  • Jogging or running
  • Walking or hiking
  • Bicycling
  • Using a stair step or elliptical machine
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Rowing
  • Dancing
  • Swimming

How a person structures his or her exercise program will depend on individual variables related to overall health and current fitness level. Because people with diabetes often have complicated health concerns, it’s very important to talk with a doctor or healthcare provider before beginning a cardio training regimen.

Many cardio exercise programs will specify how often, how long, and how hard a person should exercise. Often the workout will involve short periods of intense activity, followed by periods of lower-intensity exercise. A healthcare team can help determine the best workout for an individual. Personal trainers are also helpful for setting up a program, and many gyms provide this service.

Achieving and maintaining a higher-than-normal heart rate is the basic goal of a cardiovascular workout. Different people have different “target” heart rates and will want to maintain those rates for different lengths of time. Heart-rate monitors can help determine measurements, or there are other ways to tell when an optimal exercise level has been reached. A doctor or healthcare provider can help with these determinations.

Elements of a Cardio Workout

There are four phases of an aerobic workout:

  • Phase 1: Warm-up (5-10 minutes): The goal is to get the heart rate up to about 50 to 60% of the target rate.
  • Phase 2: Stretching (5-10 minutes): Stretching the muscles helps avoid injury and prepares them for more rigorous activity.
  • Phase 3: Activity (30-40 minutes): This is the main exercise. Times will vary depending on fitness level.
  • Phase 4: Cooldown (5-10 minutes): The period during which the heart rate gradually resumes its normal level.

At Home or in a Gym?

Once the doctor gives the OK to begin cardio training, it’s time to explore different exercise options. It might be easier to begin at a gym where the staff can explain cardio exercise machines and help develop a program that is suitable for an individual’s needs.

When joining a gym, ask some questions first. Find out whether the staff is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. Ask what experience they have in working with clients who have diabetes. Also, see if the gym offers a trial membership. Many gyms offer a free day or a free week or more to try out their facility.

For some people, however, it will be just as easy to work alone. Jogging and walking are good individual aerobic exercises. Exercising with a partner can help if motivation begins to fade.

Getting More Information

The best place to get more information about cardio workouts is by talking to your healthcare team. Ask them what kind of exercise and at what intensity would be best for your individual needs.

People new to aerobic activity might find it helpful to take a look at “Cardio for Beginners” or consider working with a personal trainer or physical therapist at first. These professionals can help you learn the basic principles of the activity, determine and monitor your target heart rate, and develop an overall plan.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • American Diabetes Association. “Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes.” Diabetes Care 27(2004): S58-S62. 
  • Duke University. “Intensive Exercise Improves Body's Ability To Process Blood Sugars.” 14 Feb. 2002. Duke University Office of News & Communications. 
  • Kelley G.A. and K.S. Kelley. “Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Lipids and Lipoproteins in Adults With Type 2 Diabetes: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized-Controlled Trials.” Public Health 121(2007): 643-55. 
  • Taylor, J.D. “The Impact of a Supervised Strength and Aerobic Training Program on Muscular Strength and Aerobic Capacity in Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes.”  J Strength Cond Res. 21(2007): 824-830.
  • “Aerobic Exercise: What 30 Minutes a Day Can Do.” 2007. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.