A Beginner's Guide to Exercising With Diabetes

Exercise is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle—use these 9 tips to get started.

Medically reviewed in December 2019

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Undeniable Benefits

Regular exercise is key to living healthy, and it's especially important for people with diabetes because it helps manage diabetes risks and symptoms. The American Diabetes Association encourages physical activity to improve overall health, protect against heart disease, and fight depression. Exercise can also lower blood glucose levels, increase energy levels, and help maintain a healthy weight. The good news is you don't have to be a world-record runner or body builder to enjoy these perks. If you've been sedentary until now, exercise might seem intimidating. But getting started isn't as hard as you think.

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Talk to Your Doctor

Before starting a new routine, schedule a doctor visit to assess your overall health. A physical exam will help you know your numbers, including weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Learn your target blood glucose levels and any possible medical limitations to your exercise routine. The American Diabetes Association suggests talking to your healthcare team about an adjusted eating plan, your insulin, and any possible oral diabetes medication you might need to keep blood glucose levels healthy. Your doctor can also advise you on safe exercises and exercises you should avoid. Knowing these benchmarks, capabilities, and limits can help you avoid injury and stay healthy.

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Set Realistic Goals

Goal setting is a great way to get motivated. Fitness expert Jason Karp, PhD, says goals should be challenging, but attainable. "Goal setting is very important because it gives people direction," says Karp, author of Running for Women. "If a goal is unattainable or unrealistic, that only leads to disappointment." Whether your goal is to run a 5K or lose 10 pounds, consider your abilities and limitations. And don't compare yourself or your goals to others. Focus on what you can do. Once you've set a goal, plan smaller goals to keep you motivated along the way. Each time you meet a short-term goal, it's a win that can help you stay motivated to reach your overall goal.

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Plan Ahead

A successful exercise routine takes planning. The more you plan, the easier it'll be to make exercising a true lifestyle change. For people with diabetes, it's important to plan nutrition strategies. Think about what foods to eat before, during, and after exercise. The American Diabetes Association suggests carrying a source of carbs in your blood sugar runs low, and to have water and snacks handy during your activity. Prepare your workout clothes and shoes the night before. Pack your gym bag with a change of clothes and other post-workout essentials. Finally, map out your exercise plan. Know which days you'll work out and what exercises you'll do.

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Start Slow

Many beginners try to do too much too soon. "If you're new to exercise as a whole, then you need to be sure to start simple and start smart," says Jonathan Penney, a National Academy of Sports Medicine trainer. Pushing yourself too hard can lead to injury and even exhaustion. Orthopedic surgeon Vonda Wright, MD, advises beginners to increase exercise levels gradually. Start with just 10-15 minutes of exercise a day. If you've been sedentary for a while, walking may be the best beginner exercise for you. Over time your fitness level will grow and you'll be able to increase your distance, endurance, and intensity. No matter what exercise you choose, start slow and give yourself time to adapt.

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Wear a Medical ID Tag

Cell phones and driver's licenses are good to have when you work out, but people with diabetes should also wear a medical identification tag or diabetes bracelet. "It is wise to carry some form of identification showing that you are diabetic," says registered dietitian Shannon Butler, who has experience with diabetes education and self-management. Medical IDs will let emergency personnel know that you have diabetes should you have a complication or need assistance during exercise. This will help you get the best treatment and support. It's also a sign to others that people with diabetes can have healthy, active lives with the proper plan and care.

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Get Social Support

If you're struggling to stay motivated, find social support. Try group exercises with family and friends. Get your best friend or partner to join you for a workout. "Working out with friends can be fun," says Sharecare fitness expert and personal trainer, Michelle Cleere, PhD. "If you're starting an exercise program you should have fun!" Even one workout partner can make a big difference. Cleere says working out with friends and family provides accountability and positive reinforcement. If your best friend or partner can't join you, reach out to your social network. Share your accomplishments in your social network or ask for extra encouragement to get the boost you need.

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Track Your Progress

Whether you log exercise through a fitness watch, a phone app, or in a handwritten journal, it's important to keep track of your workouts. "It is harder to have a clear vision when you are not tracking your progress," says Jeremiah Forster, a fitness expert and National Academy of Sports Medicine elite trainer. Fitness trackers and workout logs can show how far you've come or point out areas that need improvement. It can be motivating to watch your progress over time. Log everything from the workouts you do to how you feel and what you eat. These are all important records to keep not only to show your accomplishments but for monitoring your health.

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Monitor Your Blood Sugar

If you're new to exercise and have diabetes or prediabetes, pay close attention to your blood glucose level. Butler advises testing your blood before exercising. If your blood glucose is below 90 mg/dL, you may need a pre-exercise snack, and you may need to take special precautions if it is above 250 mg/dL. Ask your doctor for instructions. Also, avoid insulin injections before exercise because it may increase insulin absorption and cause low blood sugar levels. Keep in mind that exercise can influence your blood glucose levels up to 24 hours after the activity. "If you're increasing your everyday activity, you may require less insulin in the long-term because exercise can increase insulin sensitivity." Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.

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Don't Forget Rest Days

Everybody needs a break sometimes–even from exercise. Exercise rest days are just as important as workout days. Rest days are key for muscle recovery and injury prevention. Use rest days to get more sleep or to focus on mental rest from stress and fatigue. Remember that exercising–like all things in life–should be about moderation. Balance light workouts with more challenging workouts depending on your abilities. This healthy mix of workout days and rest days will help your body stay healthy and feel energized for your next workout.

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