Exercising When You Have Diabetes

Lowering Blood Sugar Through Physical Activity

Active couple biking on scenic road.
Stewart Cohen/DigitalVision/Getty

Exercise can do more than help you lose weight. It can increase circulation, decrease stress, and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke 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 the level of sugar in your blood (known as blood glucose) stay within range and can go a long way towards preventing the complications associated with diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes

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. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates blood glucose, therefore, they must take insulin in some form (either through injections or an insulin pump device) every day in order to live. For diabetics, blood glucose levels are dependent upon the amount of carbohydrates eaten, insulin administration and activity level.

Physical activity can lower blood glucose levels during exercise and also after the exercise is finished. This can result in a dangerous drop in blood glucose called hypoglycemia. To avoid hypoglycemia, people with type 1 diabetes need to check their blood glucose before, during, and after exercise. It is also important to bring fast-acting carbohydrates with them, such as glucose tablets or juice, 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 (or drink) 15 grams of carbohydrates every 30 to 60 minutes during exercise or if glucose levels are 100 mg/dl or less. Avoid exercise if your blood glucose level is greater than 240 mg/dl, especially if ketones are present, which will cause your glucose level to go even higher. Early detection of ketones can prevent ketoacidosis, which can lead to kidney or liver damage or even a coma.

Type 2 Diabetes

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 because they become resistant 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. Exercise can help the body to utilize insulin more efficiently while building muscle and reducing fat.

Prediabetes

People who are overweight and sedentary are at risk for developing prediabetes, which can be a precursor to type 2. Prediabetes is diagnosed when fasting blood glucose (FPG) is 100 mg/dl - 125 mg/dl, or 140 mg/dl -199 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 that you enjoy five days a week. If beginning with 30 minutes is too daunting, start with 10 minutes and work your way up to 30. 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 DVDs at home
  • Group exercise classes at your local YMCA or fitness center
  • Team sports like volleyball, tennis, basketball, racquetball
  • Winter sports like cross-country skiing or snowshoeing

There can sometimes be the possibility of underlying diabetic complications and those should be taken into consideration. Be sure to check with your doctor before you begin your exercise program.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need? Updated May 14, 2020.

  2. American Diabetes Association. Exercise & type 1.

  3. American Diabetes Association. Hyperglycemia (high blood glucose).

  4. NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of diabetes. Updated December 2016.

  5. American Diabetes Association. Diagnosis.