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Diabetes & Physical Activity: Good Medicine!

Diabetes & Physical Activity: Good Medicine!

Physical activity is important for everyone but especially for those with diabetes. Why? The reason is simple. 

couple walking dog during summer

Exercise can help control your blood sugar — and that is the name of the game with diabetes!

To encourage you even more, many types of moving may have other effects that help to improve your health. And –it is not unusual for people with diabetes to find that they can reduce their glucose-lowering medicine when they follow a healthy diet and get regular exercise. Sometimes they find that they no longer need it at all.


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


Recommended Physical Activity if You Have Type 2 Diabetes

Exercise at least 150 minutes each week. This should be moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise spread out during at least 3 days during the week.

Aerobic exercise is activity that is low intensity for a period of 15 to 20 minutes or longer

During this time, you keep your heart rate at 60-80% of your maximum heart rate. Examples of aerobic exercise include:

  • walking
  • running
  • swimming
  • rowing
  • cross country skiing
  • bicycling.

“Moderate” exercise means you are working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat. Moderate level activities are:

  • walking fast
  • pushing a lawn mower
  • water aerobics.

“Vigorous” exercise means you are breathing hard and fast, and your heart rate has gone up a lot. If you are exercising at this level, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. Vigorous level activities are:

  • jogging
  • running
  • fast cycling.

Do not go more than 2 days in a row without aerobic exercise.


In addition to aerobic training, engage in moderate to vigorous muscle-strengthening activities at least 2-3 days each week. Combining aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities may actually be better than either alone for improving your body’s ability to control blood sugar.

There are many muscle-strengthening activities that you can try, whether it is at home or at the gym:

  • weight lifting
  • resistance bands
  • using your body weight for resistance (push ups, sit ups)
  • heavy gardening (digging, shoveling)


Increase how much you move each day. Some easy things you can do are:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Walk around while you talk on the phone.
  • Park farther away from the store than you need to.

Find more ways to Be Extra Active Each Day.

Moving more during your regular daily activities has added health benefits, such as helping to prevent excessive weight gain. Using a step counter can help you increase your number of steps, especially if you set a goal, such as 10,000 steps per day.


Moderate Intensity Is Best

The key is to keep your exercise at a moderate level. Short bursts of intense exercise, such as a sprint, can actually increase your blood sugar levels. As you make a plan for regular exercise, be sure to check with your doctor. Your doctor can guide you on when it is important to test your blood sugar.

You may also need to take some precautions. For example, if your eyes suffer from diabetic retinopathy, vigorous activity such as jogging or weight lifting could cause bleeding. Your retina could also detach. And if your feet have nerve damage, a common problem with diabetes, be sure to look for blisters or other signs of damage after you exercise. Treat these injuries as your doctor has recommended.


Test Blood Sugar Levels Before, During, and After Exercise

If you take insulin or medicines that can cause low blood sugar, test your blood glucose:

  • a half-hour before exercising
  • again immediately before exercising.

By doing this, you will be able to see if your blood sugar level is stable, rising, or falling.


Use the following chart to decide whether it is safe for you to exercise:

If your blood sugar 

(mg/dL*) is:                   


Less than  100


Your blood sugar may be too low to exercise safely.

100 – 250


It is general considered safe to exercise.

250 or higher

Test your urine for ketones.

Ketones are substances that build up when your body cannot use glucose for fuel.   

Do not exercise if you have a high level of ketones.

300 or higher


It is too high to coinsider exercising.













*mg/dL means “milligrams per deciliter”


Check your blood sugar after exercise, too. If it is too low, eat some carbs to prevent hypoglycemia. In fact, it is always a good idea to keep a carb snack on hand in case your blood sugar drops too low. Exercising with a partner is also a good safety measure.


How Exercise Helps Control Blood Sugar

When you use your muscles, they need to get energy from somewhere. Most of the time, that energy comes from glucose. Glucose is the sugar running through your bloodstream after you eat. If your muscles use blood sugar for energy, then obviously, the level of sugar in your blood drops. But the effects can last far beyond the time frame of your workout.

For people with type 2 diabetes, regular exercise appears to increase the insulin sensitivity of the body’s cells. This is especially true of muscle cells. That means cells are better able to take up glucose from the bloodstream, and they require less insulin to do this. In fact, research suggests that regular exercise can help muscles take up glucose up to 20 times the normal rate.


More Benefits of Physical Activity

Because depression is more common in those with diabetes, increasing your physical activity and physical fitness can help reduce symptoms of depression

And remember, you may also find that you can reduce, or perhaps no longer need, your glucose-lowering medicine when you follow a healthy diet and get regular exercise.

Need Help?


Points to Remember

  • Exercise can help control your blood sugar.
  • Exercise at least 150 minutes each week.
  • Also engage in moderate to vigorous muscle-strengthening activities at least 2-3 days each week.
  • Check your blood glucose before and after exercise.
  • Increase how much you move each day doing normal activities.


Hope Through Research – You Can Be Part of the Answer!

Many research studies are underway to help us learn about eye diseases. Would you like to find out more about being part of this exciting research? Please visit the following links:



Colberg, SR., et al. “Exercise and type 2 diabetes: the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association: joint position statement executive summary.” Diabetes Care, v. 33 issue 12, 2010, p. 2692-6.


Content from this article originally appeared in Chow Line (8/19/07 and 3/29/09), a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission.

For more information:

Go to the Diabetes health topic.