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Exercise Safely With Diabetes


5 steps for workout success

By Jenilee Matz, MPH

Exercise’s positive effects have been proven time and again. But arguably the most significant benefit from exercising with diabetes is better glucose control.

In diabetes, the body either doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t properly use the insulin it does make, a condition known as insulin resistance, which keeps glucose levels in the blood high. “Exercise improves insulin resistance,” explains Romy Block, MD, an endocrinologist and an assistant professor of endocrinology at the University of Chicago. “Insulin resistance is like having a rusty lock. The exercise is then like WD-40.” 

But before you jump right into exercise, know that when you have diabetes, you need to take a few extra precautions to work out safely, especially if you’re new to it. Start with these five steps:


1. See your doctor.

Before you start a workout regimen, check with your doctor to learn which activities are safe for you. Your doctor may suggest a thorough checkup of your heart, eyes and feet before you begin. Depending on your health, you may need to avoid certain activities.


2. Find the right footwear. 

“It’s key to wear footwear that’s fitted well, sized properly, and appropriate for the activity you’re doing,” says Gary Scheiner, MS, CDE, of Wynnewood, PA. The right socks are also essential. “Choose thick, acrylic ones that wick away moisture,” he says. Look for seamless socks to minimize friction. Check your feet after workouts for signs of blisters, especially when you’re breaking in new shoes. 


3. Start slowly and stay committed. 

Don’t jump into a strenuous exercise program, ease into it instead. Begin with 5- to 10-minute workouts. Then, gradually increase the duration of your fitness sessions. The more consistent you are with exercise, the better your blood sugar control will be.

Aim to be active for at least 30 minutes, 5 days per week. On jam-packed days, it's OK to break up exercise into shorter sessions, like two 15-minute workouts or three 10-minute workouts. As long as you're moving for 10 continuous minutes, it counts as exercise. 

A wearable fitness tracker is a helpful tool for staying committed to exercise. Link it to a smartphone app such as My Diet Diary (available on Android and iOS) and log your workouts so you can track your progress and see where there's room for improvement. 


4. Keep a close eye on your blood sugar.

Closely monitoring your blood sugar levels before, during and after exercise, or as often as directed by your doctor, is a must. 

5. Build in safety.

Safe habits are crucial for successful exercise. Drink plenty of water before, during and after being active, to stay hydrated.  

Also carry snacks. Scheiner suggests having a fast-acting source of carbs on hand, such as raisins, pretzels, crackers or juice, to quickly boost your blood sugar in case it drops. Eat a snack or a meal within 30 minutes to 2 hours of finishing your workout to keep blood sugar levels steady. 


Published on February 19, 2015. 

Jenilee Matz is a freelance medical writer living in Charlotte, NC. She earned her Master of Public Health degree from the University of South Carolina, and previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.



Reviewed by Nora Saul, MS, RD, LDN, CDE on December 5, 2014.
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