Exercising When You Have Diabetes

Lowering Blood Sugar Through Physical Activity

Active couple biking on scenic road.
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Exercise can do more than help you lose weight. It can increase circulation, decrease stress, and reduce the risk for heart disease and strokes by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Getting regular exercise, around thirty minutes per day, is recommended for overall health. For people with diabetes, exercise can do even more. It can help keep blood glucose levels in range, and can go a long way towards preventing the complications associated with diabetes.

Type 1

Type 1 diabetes can be a balancing act when it comes to exercise. People diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes produce no insulin, or very little, in response to eating. They must take insulin in some form (either through injection or pump) every day in order to live. Blood glucose levels are dependent upon carbohydrates eaten, insulin administration and activity level.

Exercise can lower blood glucose levels during exercise and also after the exercise is finished. This can result in hypoglycemia. People with Type 1 diabetes need to check their blood glucose before, during and after exercise, and also bring a few carbohydrate snacks with them in case their blood sugar drops.

With careful monitoring of blood glucose, a person with Type 1 diabetes can learn what their individual response is to exercise and how many carbs to take in and how much insulin to use. A good guideline to follow is to eat 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrate snack every 30 to 60 minutes during exercise or if glucose levels are 100 mg/dl or less. Avoid exercise if fasting glucose levels are greater than 250 mg/dl, especially if ketosis is present. Ketosis changes the acidity of the blood and can damage kidneys and the liver.

Type 2

People diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes usually have something called "insulin resistance." This means that their bodies still produce insulin, but it's not as effective at lowering blood glucose anymore because the cells have become resistance to it. Sometimes the insulin receptors aren't as sensitive, and sometimes the pancreas just doesn't make as much insulin as it used to. This insulin resistance is usually associated with increased fat and decreased muscle mass. Muscle cells use insulin much more efficiently than fat cells do, so building more muscle and reducing fat helps the body use the insulin that is produced thereby lowering overall blood glucose levels. Exercise can help the body to utilize insulin more efficiently while building muscle and reducing fat.


People who are overweight and sedentary are at risk for developing pre-diabetes, which can be a precursor to Type 2. Prediabetes is diagnosed when fasting plasma glucose (FPG) is greater than 100 mg/dl but less than 126 mg/dl, or greater than 140 mg/dl but less than 200 mg/dl during an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT). The danger of Type 2 can be delayed or possibly even prevented if lifestyle changes include weight loss and increased physical activity.

How To Begin

Aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week. There are lots of different kinds of exercise. Try some of these or come up with your own:

  • Walking, biking, hiking, or dancing
  • Exercise videos and DVD's at home
  • Classes at the local Y such as yoga, tai chi, or pilates
  • Team sports like volleyball, martial arts, basketball, racquetball
  • Winter sports like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or mall walking

Before beginning an exercise program, be sure to check with your doctor.

There can sometimes be the possibility of underlying complications with diabetes and those should be taken into consideration before starting your exercise program.

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Article Sources
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  • American Diabetes Association. Exercise and type 1 diabetes. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/fitness/exercise-and-type-1-diabetes.html
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. How much exercise do I need? https://medlineplus.gov/howmuchexercisedoineed.html