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What are the benefits of exercise for people with diabetes?

Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

The benefits of exercising if you have diabetes include:

  • losing weight if you need to or maintaining the weight you’re at
  • regulating your blood sugar levels without medicine by helping your body use insulin better
  • decreasing your cholesterol levels while improving levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol
  • lowering high blood pressure
  • reducing your risk for heart attack and stroke
Bob Greene
Bob Greene on behalf of The Best Life
Physiology Specialist

Exercise reduces the insulin resistance that usually accompanies type 2 diabetes and prediabetes. The insulin becomes more effective and allows more glucose from your blood into your muscle cells to use as fuel when you work out.

Plus, there's a bonus: The blood sugar-lowering effect lingers from twenty-four to seventy-two hours after exercising! Muscles continue soaking up glucose, turning it into stored glycogen. You'll use that glycogen to fuel future workouts and for other times when the body needs energy. The liver is also more insulin-sensitive after a workout, so it will have less of a tendency to release too much glucose into the blood.

Meanwhile, exercise whittles your waistline, further increasing insulin sensitivity. In a French study at the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris, people with type 2 diabetes who exercised for about 55 minutes three times a week (twice on an exercise bike, once doing another aerobic activity) burned off a whopping 48 percent of their visceral fat, the type of belly fat deep in the abdomen that, in excess, is actually a cause of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. And once you have these conditions, visceral fat adds fuel to the fire, making you more resistant to insulin and increasing your triglyceride levels. Dropping some of this fat sent insulin sensitivity shooting up 42 percent in the French exercisers, and of course their fitness levels improved. A bonus: they also lost 18 percent of the belly fat lying right beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat). And get this: it all happened in just two months—without their dieting!

Increased insulin sensitivity is just one way exercise literally helps save your life when you have diabetes.

It helps in many ways, but first make sure your PCM approves of your activity. Exercise helps maintain your blood sugar level, weight loss, and reduces your risk of other disease. When performing activities drink lots of fluids with no sugar and keep fast acting carbs near by  and let your trainer know or the gym members in case you have an attack.  If you have a good gym they will know and keep an eye out for you.

Clyde Mealy
Fitness Specialist

For people with type 2 diabetes, regular exercise can help control blood sugar (reduced A1C levels by 30%) burn excess fat and help increase good cholesterol (HDL). Basic activities include a brisk walk, dancing, mowing the lawn or taking the stairs.

Increasing your physical activity is one of the best ways to manage diabetes and also reduce the risk for heart attack and stroke. Exercise can help you to lose weight, prevent or delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes, reduce blood pressure, and relieve stress. It also helps make the body's cells more responsive to insulin. The goal for most people is at least 30 to 60 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.  

Check with your doctor about the type, intensity, and duration of exercise that can best help you prevent or manage diabetes and related cardiovascular disease.

Joanne Duncan-Carnesciali, CPT, NASM Elite Trainer
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Specialist

When exercising, the body uses the glucose stored in the blood to create the energy the body needs to move.  When this happens excess blood sugar glucose is removed from the blood.  In effect, exercise helps one manage blood glucose levels.

Dr. Jennifer N. Caudle, DO
Family Practitioner

Exercise can help manage diabetes in many ways, by keeping a patient's weight down and keeping a patient healthy and strong. Watch family medicine physician Jennifer Caudle, DO, describe the types of exercise that can benefit diabetes patients.

For people with diabetes, exercise provides the benefit of lowering blood glucose. Taking insulin and doing physical activity both lower blood glucose. When people are physically active, their body is working extra hard, so body cells use up lots of their fuel—glucose—and blood glucose levels go down. It’s really important for everyone to be physically active to stay healthy. But for people with diabetes it’s extra important because it helps insulin to keep blood glucose levels in the correct range.

William Lee Dubois
Endocrinologist

Exercise is good for your diabetes because it makes sugar move out of your blood. It also helps your heart, your brain, your lungs, and your muscles all feel better and perform better.

You don't need to work out at the gym. In fact, let's all get out our pens and strike out the word exercise and write the word activity above it. You really don't need to exercise so much as to keep active, to keep moving. Just integrate some extra motion into your day. Park your car farther away from stores when shopping. Never take an elevator when stairs are handy. Dance with your children or grandchildren. Walk around the couch three times during commercials.

Or get a dog. Dogs need to be walked, and you'll both have a grand time.

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If you have diabetes, physical activity will help you:

  1. Improve blood glucose management. Activity makes your body more sensitive to the insulin you make. Activity also burns glucose (calories). Both actions lower blood glucose.
  2. Lower blood pressure. Activity helps your heart pump stronger and slower.
  3. Improve blood fats. Exercise can raise good cholesterol (HDL) and lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides. These changes are heart healthy.
  4. Take less insulin or diabetes pills. Activity can lower blood glucose and weight. Both of these may lower how much insulin or diabetes pills you need to take.
  5. Lose weight and keep it off. Activity burns calories. If you burn enough calories, you'll trim a few pounds. Stay active and you'll keep the weight off.
  6. Lower risk for other health problems. Reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke, some cancers, and bone loss.
  7. Gain more energy and sleep better. You'll get better sleep in less time and have more energy, too.
  8. Reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Work out or walk off daily stress.
  9. Build stronger bones and muscles. Weight-bearing activities, such as walking, make bones stronger. Strength-training activities, such as lifting light weights (or even cans of beans), make muscles strong.
  10. Be more flexible. Move easier when you are active.

The most important goals of exercise for individuals with either type of diabetes are glucose control and for those with type two diabetes, weight loss. Exercise training is effective with both goals because it has a similar action to insulin by enhancing the uptake of circulating glucose by exercising skeletal muscle. Research has shown that exercise improves a variety of glucose measures, including tissue sensitivity, improved glucose tolerance, and even a decrease in insulin requirements. Thus, exercise has been shown to have a substantial positive effect on the prevention of type two diabetes.

Exercise has numerous benefits for people with diabetes. And even though you know that exercise is good for you, you may be reluctant to start—just one more thing to keep track of and make sure you're doing it right.

But exercise—even just regular movement like gardening and housecleaning—has many benefits for someone who has diabetes. These benefits include:

  • lowering your blood sugar, both while you're exercising and after you finish
  • increasing insulin sensitivity, so your cells absorb more sugar (glucose) from your bloodstream
  • aiding weight loss and weight management
  • decreasing risk for heart attack and stroke
  • fighting abdominal fat, the dangerous kind that accumulates around the waistline
  • reducing stress hormones, which contribute to numerous health problems
  • releasing feel-good chemicals in the brain, which can improve your confidence and sense of control

Beyond these major, proven benefits, exercise also may prevent certain cancers, improve your sex life, delay bone loss, preserve memory, boost your immune system, reduce arthritis and back pain, aid digestion, improve sleep and generally slow the problems associated with aging.

Being active provides huge benefits, from lowering blood glucose (sugar), cholesterol and blood pressure to helping with weight loss and improving mood. The good news is that even for people who are not passionate about exercise, there are many ways to be active.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.