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updated February 23, 2007

Diabetes and exercise: Take control with physical activity

  • Exercise is an important part of any diabetes treatment plan. Here's the connection between diabetes and exercise — as well as how to get started and how to stay on track.
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Filed under: Diabetes

( Thinking about adding exercise to your diabetes treatment plan? Good for you! Diabetes and exercise go hand in hand. Regular physical activity can help you improve your blood sugar control, as well as boost your overall fitness and reduce your risk of heart disease and nerve damage.

Learn more about how exercise affects your diabetes. Assess possible limitations, and keep your blood sugar on track as you increase your activity level.

Buy into the hype

Besides boosting your mood and energy levels, exercise leads to:

  • Improved blood sugar control. When you exercise, your muscles use sugar (glucose) for energy. This reduces your blood sugar. The more strenuous your workout, the longer the effect lasts. And there's more. If you have type 2 diabetes, exercise can increase your insulin sensitivity. That means your body requires less insulin to escort sugar into your cells. Along with a healthy-eating plan, exercise may even reduce — or eliminate — your need for glucose-lowering medication.
  • Improved heart health. Diabetes increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. Exercise counteracts the risk by improving blood flow, increasing your heart's pumping power and improving your cholesterol levels.
  • Improved weight control. Exercise can help you lose weight — and keep it off.
Get the green light

Before jumping into a fitness program, get your doctor's OK to exercise — especially if you've been inactive. Discuss with your doctor which activities you're contemplating and any limitations you may have.

For example, if you have diabetic retinopathy — abnormal growth of blood vessels on your retina — strenuous activity could lead to bleeding or retinal detachment. You may need to avoid certain activities, such as weightlifting or jogging. If you have reduced sensation in your feet, your doctor may recommend non-weight-bearing activities, such as swimming or biking.

Also discuss with your doctor the best time to exercise. If you take insulin, you might need to adjust your insulin dose before exercising or wait a few hours to exercise after injecting insulin.

Exercise good judgment

When you're ready to exercise, start slowly. Work your way up to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week. While you're working out, remember to take good care of yourself.

  • Monitor your blood sugar. Check your blood sugar before, during and after exercise — especially if you take insulin or medications that can cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Carry glucose tablets or hard candy in case your blood sugar drops too low or you feel shaky, nervous or confused.
  • Pay attention to your feet. Wear smooth-fitting socks and comfortable athletic shoes. Examine your feet before and after exercise for any signs of potential damage, such as cuts or blisters.
  • Drink up. Drink plenty of fluids while you exercise, especially when it's hot. Dehydration can increase your blood sugar. If you exercise for more than an hour, drink carbohydrate-containing beverages rather than plain water.
  • Identify yourself. Wear a diabetes identification bracelet or shoe tag while exercising, in case of an emergency.
  • Know when to stop. If you experience any warning signs — severe shortness of breath, dizziness, faintness, nausea, chest pain, heart palpitations, or pain in an arm or in your jaw — stop exercising. If you don't feel better within 15 minutes, seek immediate medical help.
Keep your eye on the prize

Try not to get discouraged if exercise causes significant changes in your blood sugar and upsets your normal management routine. Continue to test your blood sugar frequently until you begin to notice a pattern and can adjust your meals and medications accordingly. Your health care team can help, too. Once you understand how your body responds to exercise, you'll be even closer to a healthier you.

©1998-2008 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Terms of use.

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