8 Best Workouts for Diabetes

Try these fun, safe workouts for better blood sugar.

Medically reviewed in February 2021

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No doubt you’ve heard about the wonders of exercise (how it helps you lose weight, sleep better, and feel more energetic), but for people who have diabetes, exercise is absolutely essential. "Trying to manage diabetes without being physically active is like a singer performing without a microphone," says Gary Scheiner, MS, CDE, author of Think Like a Pancreas: A Practical Guide to Managing Diabetes with Insulin (Da Capo Press). "Exercise is one of the most empowering things you can do to lower your blood glucose and control your diabetes." Try one of these 8 expert-recommended workouts.

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Try weight lifting

Weight lifting isn’t just for bodybuilders. Adults should engage in muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Weight-lifting can be particularly beneficial for people with diabetes. Resistance training—also known as strength training—lowers your blood sugar levels by giving your muscles more room to store extra carbs as glycogen for energy, says Sheri R. Colberg, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and author of Diabetic Athlete’s Handbook: Your Guide to Peak Performance (Human Kinetics). Resistance training also boosts metabolism so you burn more calories. Start with resistance bands or small hand weights two or three times a week for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Increase the weight or resistance as you get stronger.

Keep in mind however, that any amount of physical activity is better than none. Every minute of exercise adds up and will work toward reducing your risk for a slew of chronic health issues, including heart disease.

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Take a walk

The simple act of walking is still one of the best exercises you can do for diabetes, says Betul Hatipoglu, MD, an endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic. "It’s easy," she says. "You just need a pair of shoes. You can do it anywhere, anytime." If it’s been a while since you exercised, start by taking a few short walks a day. Even just a two-minute stroll offers health benefits. Do errands on foot, walk through the mall, or take a midday walk at lunch. Aim to walk a total of 30 to 45 minutes a day, or strap on a pedometer and try to log 10,000 steps daily.

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Take control with tai chi

Tai chi originated in China as a martial art and is touted today as a way to reduce stress, improve balance, and enhance flexibility. In people with diabetes, it can even lower blood glucose levels. According to a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, patients who did an hour of tai chi twice a week in a class and 20 minutes three times a week at home reduced their blood glucose levels, improved their overall diabetes care, and had a better quality of life, including mental well-being. "Tai chi is really good for both balance and flexibility at the same time," Colberg says. "It also works on muscle strength and helps lower glucose because it lowers stress."

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Get into the pool

For people who have diabetes, pool exercises, such as water aerobics and pool walking, are great low-intensity cardio workouts that burn calories and improve flexibility. They’re even safe for people who have diabetic neuropathy, which often causes weakness, numbness, tingling, and pain in the hands and feet. For people with loss of feeling in their feet, pool exercises are a lot kinder and gentler on the feet, Colberg says. If you have arthritis as well, water workouts are a good bet because they have low impact on the joints.

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Pick up the pace with interval training

Injecting bursts of high intensity into your workouts -- known as interval training -- helps lower your blood glucose level, improve cardiovascular health, and build stamina. Next time you’re walking on a treadmill, try adding short bursts of speed to your workout. On the elliptical machine? Crank up the resistance. Out on a walk? Alternate between a fast pace and slow pace. Colberg recommends starting with short 15- to 30-second bursts of intensity and gradually working up to longer intervals of a minute or two.

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Practice your balance

Diabetic neuropathy can throw off your gait and make balance more difficult. "With age, you naturally lose some balancing ability," Colberg says. "People with diabetes often lose sensation in their feet, so they don’t know where they’re placing their feet." Balance exercises help counteract that. Try standing on one foot near a chair or countertop. Once you’re able to stand on one foot without toppling over, try doing it with your eyes closed. Practice balancing on each foot.

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Add physical activity to your day

Try as they might, some people just don’t enjoy exercise. For them, everyday chores can help add more physical activity to their routine. "There is plenty you can accomplish while burning calories and lowering blood sugar," Scheiner says. "Just about any form of movement is helpful." Gardening, housecleaning, and washing the car are all great ways to be active, he notes. Walking the dog, doing errands on foot, or playing active games with your children or grandchildren count, too.

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Do what you love

Whether it's ballroom dancing with your honey, hiking in the mountains, or a rigorous game of ping pong, the key to exercise is to do something you love. "Any type of exercise is good for people with diabetes," says Steve Edelman, MD, founder of the educational organization Taking Control of Your Diabetes. "Do what you enjoy or else you will not be consistent." If you love an activity -- whether it's a formal exercise program or a physically active hobby -- you're more likely to stick with it.

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