Nutrition and physical activity are important parts of a healthy lifestyle when you have diabetes. Along with other benefits, following a healthy meal plan and being active can help you keep your blood glucose level, also called blood sugar, in your target range. To manage your blood glucose, you need to balance what you eat and drink with physical activity and diabetes medicine, if you take any. What you choose to eat, how much you eat, and when you eat are all important in keeping your blood glucose level in the range that your health care team recommends.
Becoming more active and making changes in what you eat and drink can seem challenging at first. You may find it easier to start with small changes and get help from your family, friends, and health-care team.
Eating well and being physically active most days of the week can help you…
- Keep your blood glucose level, blood pressure, and cholesterol in your target ranges,
- Lose weight or stay at a healthy weight,
- Prevent or delay diabetes problems,
- Feel good and have more energy.
Why should I be physically active if I have diabetes?
Physical activity is an important part of managing your blood glucose level and staying healthy. Being active has many health benefits.
- Lowers blood glucose levels,
- Lowers blood pressure,
- Improves blood flow,
- Burns extra calories so you can keep your weight down if needed,
- Improves your mood,
- Can prevent falls and improve memory in older adults,
- May help you sleep better.
If you are overweight, combining physical activity with a reduced-calorie eating plan can lead to even more benefits. In the Look AHEAD: Action for Health in Diabetes study,1 overweight adults with type 2 diabetes who ate less and moved more had greater long-term health benefits compared to those who didn’t make these changes. These benefits included improved cholesterol levels, less sleep apnea and being able to move around more easily.
Even small amounts of physical activity can help. Experts suggest that you aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity five days of the week.2 Moderate activity feels somewhat hard, and vigorous activity is intense and feels hard. If you want to lose weight or maintain weight loss, you may need to do 60 minutes or more of physical activity five days of the week.2
Be patient. It may take a few weeks of physical activity before you see changes in your health.
How can I be physically active safely if I have diabetes?
Be sure to drink water before, during, and after exercise to stay well-hydrated. The following are some other tips for safe physical activity when you have diabetes.
Talk with your health-care team before you start a new physical activity routine, especially if you have other health problems. Your health-care team will tell you a target range for your blood glucose level and suggest how you can be active safely.
Your health-care team also can help you decide the best time of day for you to do physical activity based on your daily schedule, meal plan and diabetes medicines. If you take insulin, you need to balance the activity that you do with your insulin doses and meals so you don’t get low blood glucose.
Prevent low blood glucose
Because physical activity lowers your blood glucose, you should protect yourself against low blood glucose levels, also called hypoglycemia. You are most likely to have hypoglycemia if you take insulin or certain other diabetes medicines, such as a sulfonylurea. Hypoglycemia also can occur after a long intense workout or if you have skipped a meal before being active. Hypoglycemia can happen during or up to 24 hours after physical activity.
Planning is key to preventing hypoglycemia. For instance, if you take insulin, your health-care provider might suggest you take less insulin or eat a small snack with carbohydrates before, during, or after physical activity, especially intense activity.3
You may need to check your blood glucose level before, during and right after you are physically active.
Stay safe when blood glucose is high
If you have type 1 diabetes, avoid vigorous physical activity when you have ketones in your blood or urine. Ketones are chemicals your body might make when your blood glucose level is too high, a condition called hyperglycemia, and your insulin level is too low. If you are physically active when you have ketones in your blood or urine, your blood glucose level may go even higher. Ask your health-care team what level of ketones are dangerous for you and how to test for them. Ketones are uncommon in people with type 2 diabetes.
Take care of your feet
People with diabetes may have problems with their feet because of poor blood flow and nerve damage that can result from high blood glucose levels. To help prevent foot problems, you should wear comfortable, supportive shoes and take care of your feet before, during and after physical activity.
What physical activities should I do if I have diabetes?
Most kinds of physical activity can help you take care of your diabetes. Certain activities may be unsafe for some people, such as those with low vision or nerve damage to their feet. Ask your health-care team what physical activities are safe for you. Many people choose walking with friends or family members for their activity.
Doing different types of physical activity each week will give you the most health benefits. Mixing it up also helps reduce boredom and lowers your chance of getting hurt. Try these options for physical activity.
Add extra activity to your daily routine
If you have been inactive or you are trying a new activity, start slowly with five to 10 minutes a day. Then add a little more time each week. Increase daily activity by spending less time in front of the TV or other screen. Try these simple ways to add physical activities in your life each day…
- Walk around while you talk on the phone or during TV commercials.
- Do chores, such as work in the garden, rake leaves, clean the house or wash the car.
- Park at the far end of the shopping center parking lot and walk to the store.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Make your family outings active, such as a family bike ride or a walk in a park.
If you are sitting for a long time, such as working at a desk or watching TV, do some light activity for three minutes or more every half hour.4 Light activities include…
- Leg lifts or extensions,
- Overhead arm stretches,
- Desk chair swivels,
- Torso twists,
- Side lunges,
- Walking in place.
Do aerobic exercise
Aerobic exercise is activity that makes your heart beat faster and makes you breathe harder. You should aim for doing aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day most days of the week. You do not have to do all the activity at one time. You can split up these minutes into a few times throughout the day.
To get the most out of your activity, exercise at a moderate to vigorous level. Try…
- Walking briskly or hiking,
- Climbing stairs,
- Swimming or a water-aerobics class,
- Riding a bicycle or a stationary bicycle,
- Taking an exercise class,
- Playing basketball, tennis or other sports.
Talk with your health-care team about how to warm up and cool down before and after you exercise.
Do strength training to build muscle
Strength training is a light or moderate physical activity that builds muscle and helps keep your bones healthy. Strength training is important for both men and women. When you have more muscle and less body fat, you’ll burn more calories. Burning more calories can help you lose and keep off extra weight.
You can do strength training with hand weights, elastic bands or weight machines. Try to do strength training two to three times a week. Start with a light weight. Slowly increase the size of your weights as your muscles become stronger.
Do stretching exercises
Stretching exercises are light or moderate physical activity. When you stretch, you increase your flexibility, lower your stress and help prevent sore muscles.
You can choose from many types of stretching exercises. Yoga is a type of stretching that focuses on your breathing and helps you relax. Even if you have problems moving or balancing, certain types of yoga can help. For instance, chair yoga has stretches you can do when sitting in a chair or holding onto a chair while standing. Your health-care team can suggest whether yoga is right for you.
1 American Diabetes Association. Foundations of care and comprehensive medical evaluation. Diabetes Care. 2016;39(suppl 1):S26 (Table 3.3).
2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans summary. http://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/summary.aspx. Updated June 21, 2016. Accessed June 21, 2016.
3 Yardley JE, Sigal RJ. Exercise strategies for hypoglycemia prevention in individuals with type 1 diabetes. Diabetes Spectrum. 2015;28(1):32–38.
4 Colberg SR, Sigal RJ, Yardley JE, et al. Physical activity/exercise and diabetes: a position statement of the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care. 2016;39(11):2065–2079.