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Your Best Diabetes Workouts


Exercises for better blood sugar control

Updated on March 31, 2016.

By Jenilee Matz, MPH


Experts say a combination of aerobic workouts, which get your heart rate pumping, and strength training is best for blood sugar control. But the real best exercise for better blood glucose is one that interests you, suggests Gary Scheiner, MS, CDE, of Wynnewood, PA. “The key is to find something you have access to and enjoy,” Scheiner says. You’re more likely to stick with it, which can be crucial for your health. The American Diabetes Association and Diabetes Canada recommend that people with diabetes work their way up to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, plus two to three strength-training workouts, such as a weights class. Try one of these diabetes-friendly workouts and see if it works for you.* If not, don't despair — try another!


Strength Training

1. Strength training

These exercises build muscle. Lifting weights, using your body weight for resistance (such as when doing pushups or planks), working out with resistance bands, and even pulling weeds in the yard are examples of strength training. Studies show that strength training can improve blood sugar control, reduce A1C levels and boost your metabolism. Lifting weights can also make you stronger and enhance bone density, which can help you stay independent as you age.

As a first step, consider taking a class or working with a personal trainer. That way you’ll learn correct form, which can prevent you from getting hurt. Once you’re comfortable, buy some free weights and work out at home. (People with some forms of retinopathy and cardiac damage should avoid strength training so, if either apply to you, ask your doctor before you start.)


2. Water exercise and other low-impact activities

If you have lower extremity issues, such as peripheral neuropathy, a condition that involves nerve damage to the feet, Scheiner suggests sticking with low-impact activities like swimming, water aerobics, cycling and rowing. These forms of fitness are ideal for people with diabetes because they blast calories and improve blood flow without taxing your joints.

Look for a gym or recreation center with a pool to find water fitness classes and lap swimming times; most also have stationary bicycles and rowing machines as part of their cardio fitness equipment. 



3. Walking 

Brisk walking is an excellent option because there's no equipment involved — you just need a good pair of shoes. Walking is especially beneficial for people with diabetes: four hours of brisk walking on a treadmill each week slowed nerve damage in people with peripheral neuropathy, one study found. (Walking may not be healthy for everyone with peripheral neuropathy, so be sure to check with your doctor.)

When walking for exercise, you should be breathing heavier than you do normally, but still able to carry on a light conversation. At least one study has shown that brief periods of intense exercise lower blood sugar levels more effectively than longer, less vigorous ones. So, try to keep your walking pace brisk.



4. Mindful movement 

Mindful movement, such as yoga and tai chi (a gentle form of exercise that involves focused movements and controlled breathing), benefits both the mind and body. It improves flexibility and balance and helps relieve stress. Research shows that practicing yoga and tai chi may lower blood sugar, reduce blood pressure and improve emotional well-being, among other health benefits. Some forms of yoga, such as vinyasa, even double as strength-training workouts (see above). 

Yoga and tai chi classes are offered at fitness centers and yoga studios. You can also practice on your own by following along with a fitness DVD or videos from a streaming service. 


*Before you do any new exercise routine, check with your doctor to learn which activities are safe for you. When you have diabetes, you may have to take a few extra precautions to work out safely. Try to check your blood sugar before, during and after exercise to make sure it's within target range. While exercising for 30 minutes five times a week is usually recommended, you may have to start more slowly, especially if you're new to working out.


Published on February 19, 2015.


Jenilee Matz is a freelance medical writer in Charlotte, NC. She earned her masters of public health from the University of South Carolina and previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 


Reviewed by Shira R. Goldenholz, MD, MPH on April 4, 2016.
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