Exercise is important for people with diabetes

People who exercise have lower blood pressure, lower heart rates and improved circulation. They also have lower cholesterol and less body fat, as well as higher rates of metabolism and consequently better weight control. They sleep better, have more energy, are less stressed/anxious and are happier and more confident.

The importance for diabetes management

Unlike medication, exercise is low cost and side effect free. Those with diabetes who don’t exercise are three times more likely to have poor diabetes control and more likely to suffer related complications. Exercising regularly, apart from getting the benefits listed above, improves sensitivity to a range of metabolic hormones and the body becomes better at transporting glucose. This happens because exercise stimulates the body’s muscles.

Exercise also reduces the level of fat in the body, particularly round about the tummy area. It is thought that it is this mobilisation of the body’s fat stores, by exercising, that might improve blood glucose control. Less glucose in the blood, because it’s now stored in the body’s muscle, means the blood flows better and some of the blood vessel complications associated with diabetes may be avoided.

A couple tying their exercise shoes on a bench.

Top tips to get started

  • Check with medical personnel that your diabetes is presently stable enough to allow you to begin an exercise routine.
  • Start with small bouts of exercise of low intensity and build up gradually. Start with 5-10minutes of activity per day for the first week, then add on 5 minutes per day until the target goal of 150 minutes (2½ hrs) of moderate activity is reached.
  • Find an exercise partner – this could be a family member, children or grandchildren, or a work colleague – and make it fun.
  • Choose something you enjoy, as you are more likely to stick with it.
  • Find out if any of the following schemes are locally available: Health-led Walks or
    Exercise on Referral / Social Prescribing schemes

How much exercise should I do per week?

To get health benefits, the Government recommends adults should be aiming to exercise at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes, five days (but preferably most days) of the week.

However, the same health benefits can be gained by breaking this down into 10-minute bouts of moderate activity. The overall aim should be to accumulate 150 minutes (2½ hrs) of moderate activity per week. Little and often, with a general message of “Move More, Sit Less”, is recognised as an important means by which people can start to become more physically active.

How long do effects from exercise last for?

The good news is that if someone regularly exercises, these benefits can be permanent, and for someone with diabetes it can mean reducing their medication. If younger members of families with a predisposition to diabetes exercise regularly, they could avoid diabetes altogether.

A single bout of exercise can benefit the body’s sensitivity to insulin for 16-18 hours, exerting effects on blood glucose control for 24-48 hours but these effects have worn off by 60-72 hours. Even a little bit of exercise is better than none at all, and a little and often approach to exercise can be of benefit.

What do we mean by moderate activity?

A scale known as Borg’s scale of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is used to rate how hard the exerciser is working. Moderate activity means the exerciser should feel some breathlessness, be aware that his/her pulse is raised, be sweating, know that he/she is using his/her muscles, but still be able to hold some brief conversation.

Woman In Swimming Goggles In Swimming Pool

What types of exercise should be performed?

Three S’s make up the components of all-round exercise. These are strength, suppleness and stamina. To gain the benefits of exercise, all of these components should be included in the exercise routine. Traditional exercise prescriptions focused on aerobic exercise, but it is now recognised that health benefits, particularly for people with diabetes, are best built upon by doing some strength (resistance) exercises too. To develop these components and get the exercise benefits you don’t have to join a gym or an exercise class – but these methods are recommended as this means you will have company exercising; someone is likely to be supervising what you are doing; and if in the gym, you will probably have been prescribed a personal exercise plan.

Low intensity exercise  

If the gym or exercise class is not for you, there are still ways to exercise in and around the home during your daily routines. Walking is a cheap and easy way of getting exercise and can be built into your day. This can be done by parking the car further away from work, getting off the bus a stop earlier or intentionally going for a walk at lunchtime, and how about using stairs instead of escalators/lifts? A pedometer can act as an additional motivational tool.

Top tips to exercise safely

  • Build up slowly; this includes if opting to perform chair-based exercises.
  • Don’t ever try to lift maximum weights on your own and never breath-hold when
    doing any weight or resistance-based exercises.
  • Don’t try to do too much; stick to moderate-intensity exercise.
  • If new to exercise, it may be best for you to monitor your blood glucose before,
    during and after exercise until a routine is established. If doing any prolonged
    exercise or activity, check blood glucose during the activity and adjust medication
    and/or food as necessary.
  • If your diabetes is controlled by diet alone, then you don’t need to adjust your food intake when exercising, unless undertaking, for example, a marathon.
  • Don’t exercise when you are feeling ill, you are vomiting or have an infection.
  • Ensure that your footwear won’t cause blisters and practise good foot care.
  • If you’ve been diagnosed with retinopathy, you may need some additional advice
    about the safest types of exercise for you.
  • If you’ve been diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy, you may need to have your
    pulse and blood pressure monitored during exercise. Weight-bearing exercises
    may have to be avoided if you have peripheral neuropathy. Check first with your healthcare professional
A group of fruits and vegetables

Healthy Living

Adjusting your diet and regularly exercising can help people living with diabetes achieve greater stability with their blood glucose levels, reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, support the management of a good body weight and maintain a good quality of life. 

Learn more about healthy living with diabetes