Exercise and Diabetes. Get Moving

Diabetes affects millions of people. Although diabetes is a serious health problem, with proper care you can learn to manage your diabetes and lead a full and active life.

When you eat, some of your food is broken down into glucose (a kind of sugar). Glucose travels in your blood to all your body’s cells. Insulin, made by your pancreas, helps glucose move from your blood into your cells. Glucose helps your cells produce the energy you need for healthy living. Glucose from food makes your blood glucose level go up. Insulin lowers blood glucose levels by helping glucose move from your bloodstream into your cells. When you have diabetes your body doesn’t make any insulin, or enough insulin, or your body prevents the insulin you do produce from working properly. You must do the work your body did before diabetes to keep your insulin and glucose in balance.

The most common types of diabetes are Type 1 and Type 2. In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas (the organ that makes insulin) does not work right. The cells that produce insulin are damaged or destroyed, so the body makes little or no insulin, and usually occurs in children or young adults.

In Type 2 diabetes, the body makes some insulin, but not enough. Or, the body prevents the insulin you do produce from working properly. Approximately 90% to 95% of all diabetics are Type 2. Type 2 diabetes is more common in overweight older adults, but it is becoming more common in young people and children.

People with Type 1 diabetes will always need to take insulin to manage their diabetes. However, Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease. At first, they may be able to manage their blood glucose with diet and exercise, but most will eventually need to take insulin to manage their diabetes.

The cause of diabetes is unknown, but scientists do know that certain things (risk factors) increase your chance of getting diabetes. Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include being overweight, high blood pressure and a family history of diabetes.


  • Tired all the time
  • Always thirsty
  • Need to urinate often
  • Blurry vision
  • Always hungry
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Sexual problems
  • Wounds that won’t heal
  • Vaginal infections
  • Numb or tingling hands or feet

The treatment goal for diabetes is glucose control, which includes diet, and exercise. Exercise is effective in glucose control because it has an insulin-like effect that enhances the uptake of glucose even in the presence of insulin deficiency. Exercise will help improve glucose tolerance, increase insulin sensitivity, and decrease insulin requirements. Additional benefits of exercise for diabetic patients include improved lipid profiles, blood pressure reduction, weight management, increased physical work capacity, and improved well-being.

Prior to beginning an exercise program, diabetic patients should undergo an extensive medical evaluation. Cardiorespiratory activities include any activity that increases your resting heart rate and uses the large muscles in your legs and arms. Walking is easiest. You may enjoy an aerobics or step class, running, swimming, water aerobics, chair aerobics, riding a bike or dancing.

Get at least 150 min/week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (50-70% of maximum heart rate) and/or at least 90 min/week of vigorous aerobic exercise (more than 70% of maximum heart rate) is recommended. The physical activity should be distributed over at least 3 days/week and with no more than two 2 consecutive days without physical activity.  Ask your health care team what your target heart rate should be. Or, you can use perceived exertion by asking yourself, how hard am I working? After a 5-10 minute warm-up of gradually increasing your intensity, the exercise should feel somewhat hard – to hard. You should always be able to talk to someone near you while exercising.

Hypoglycemia or low blood glucose is the most common problem for diabetics who exercise. Because of the increase of glucose uptake during exercise, the risk of hypoglycemia exists during and after exercise, and may last as long as 48 hours after exercise.

Common symptoms include:

  • Crying
  • Drowsiness
  • Fainting or feeling faint
  • Hand tremors
  • Sweat
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive hunger
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Unsteady gait

Monitor blood glucose prior to exercise and following exercise, especially when beginning or modifying the exercise program. Never exercise if your blood glucose level is too low. Measurements that are less than 100 mg/dL are considered hypoglycemic, but rapid drops in blood glucose can also cause signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia.


If you take insulin or diabetes medicine, you may need a snack before or after you exercise. Muscles keep burning glucose even after you stop exercising.

–  3 graham cracker squares
–  15 – 20 fat free chips
–  1 small piece of fresh fruit
–  2 TBSP of raisins
–  1 cup skim or low fat milk

  • If you are trying to lose weight, talk to your health care team about using less insulin or medicine instead of eating more food.