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Quality Health Care and You - Diabetes

Diabetes and Exercise

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood are higher than normal. Glucose is produced by the body from the foods that you eat. Insulin, which is a hormone produced by the pancreas (an organ located in your abdomen), takes the glucose from the bloodstream and carries it into your cells where it is used for energy. Diabetes occurs when glucose does not enter the cells and instead, builds up in the bloodstream.

When glucose levels are too high, they can cause damage to the blood vessels, nerves and other organs in the body and can also shorten your life.

Why is exercise important for people with diabetes?

Physical activity is like a “secret weapon” to help fight the diabetes.

When you exercise, your body becomes more sensitive to insulin. This means that it takes less insulin to manage your diabetes. For most people with diabetes, just taking a walk every day can cut the amount of medications they need to control their blood sugar.


Benefits of Exercise for People with Diabetes

  • Lowers blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Improves circulation
  • Reduces the need for insulin and oral medications
  • Prevents weight gain and promotes weight loss (having too much body fat can make diabetes worse)
  • Strengthens the heart, muscles and bones
  • Improves strength, flexibility and endurance
  • Improves brain function and mood
  • Lowers stress


You can fight diabetes by being active! Learn why exercise is so important to living a diabetes free life!

How do you get started with an exercise routine?

Before you begin an exercise routine, your healthcare team will evaluate your heart, kidneys, feet, and nervous system to make sure you are healthy enough for physical activity. Some types of activities may not be appropriate for you. For example, if you have problems with the nerves in your feet, your doctor might recommend a type of exercise that doesn’t put pressure on your feet.

As you start to exercise, start slowly so that your body can get used to it. Start with a 5 to 10 minute walk outdoors or on a treadmill, and then gradually add a few more minutes of walking each week. Once your body gets used to walking, try adding new activities like swimming, cycling, dancing or aerobic classes.

What should you know about diabetes medications and exercising?

You should check your blood glucose level before and after exercise, especially if you take insulin or oral medications to lower blood sugar. Exercise changes the way your body reacts to insulin and this can cause swings in blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia). These are serious conditions but with the right monitoring, they can be avoided. Fear of these conditions should not keep you from exercising.

Because exercise helps to lower blood sugar, some diabetes medication doses may need to be adjusted as you go about your exercise program.


Blood Glucose Levels and Exercising

  • If your blood sugar is 300 mg/dL or higher before exercising, you should not exercise because your sugar level could go higher.
  • If your blood sugar is less than 100 mg/dL before exercising, you should eat a snack.

What should you do with this information?

Being physically active is important for everyone, and especially for people living with diabetes. Talk with your doctor about the best type of exercise for you and choose something that you enjoy so that you are more likely to stick with it. Regular exercise and a healthy diet will improve your diabetes management and your quality of life.

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This is a publication of the Hormone Foundation (June 2008), the public education affiliate of The Endocrine Society, which serves as a resource for the public by promoting the prevention, treatment, and cure of hormone- related conditions. This page may be reproduced non-commercially by health care professionals and health educators to share with patients and students.

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Last Reviewed: Jun 18, 2008