Exercise and Diabetes: How Much and What Types?

Exercise and Diabetes hiking

I know that every bout of exercise boosts inulin sensitivity. Here I’m on my favorite trail in Hungry Mother State Park.

I’ve gotten several questions recently about exercise and diabetes. Here’s one from someone with type 2 diabetes.

Q: Every website I look at gives me different recommendations for the amount and types of exercise I’m supposed to get. Some say aerobic exercise 30 minutes three times per week. Others say 10 minutes daily. Still others say 30 – 60 minutes daily. I’m so confused.

A: Exercise recommendations vary based on your health and health goals. That’s probably why you’re seeing different sets of guidelines. The amounts and types of exercise you should aim for differ if your goal is to maintain cardiovascular fitness, improve cardiovascular fitness, prevent type diabetes, manage type 2 diabetes, lose weight, etc.

Exercise and Type 2 Diabetes

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recently released a position statement on this topic. Here are their general guidelines for adults with type 2 diabetes.

Aerobic or cardiovascular exercise such as swimming, brisk walking, jogging and biking improves insulin sensitivity, lung function, blood vessel function, cardiac output and immune function. Regular aerobic training reduces your risk of dying from heart disease. It lowers blood sugar levels, triglyceride levels and blood pressure. Even 20 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve insulin action for 24 hours if some of that time is spent in high intensity exercise.

Recommendation: Exercise daily to enhance insulin sensitivity. (Remember that decreased insulin sensitivity is a hallmark of type 2 diabetes.)

Recommendation: Engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity weekly, spread over at least three days and with no more than two days without physical activity.

As little as 20 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve insulin action for 24 hoursClick To Tweet

Resistance exercise such as lifting free weights, using elastic bands or using weight machines is associated with improvements in insulin sensitivity, body composition, muscle mass and strength, cardiovascular health, bone mineralization and more. Diabetes is an independent risk factor for low muscular strength, making strength training all the more important.

Resistance training is equally important as aerobic training and enhances insulin sensitivity as well. The combination of aerobic and resistance training is better than either alone.

Recommendation: Engage in resistance training two to three times weekly on non-consecutive days.

Combine aerobic exercise and strength training for better blood sugar controlClick To Tweet

Flexibility and balance training are also important, especially for older adults. Consider yoga and tai chi.

Reducing sedentary behavior is also critical to good health and diabetes management. We all drive, sit at a desk, lounge on the coach reading and watching TV and engage regularly in other sedentary behaviors. Excessive sitting is linked to poorer blood sugar control and other problems related to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Recommendation: Break up sitting with three minutes of movement every 30 minutes.

These are the basic recommendations. But what’s my bottom line? Just get moving. If the recommendations overwhelm you, ignore them for now. Simply get started on doing more than you’ve been doing.

  • Take a 15-minute walk after lunch
  • Collect shells on the beach instead of lounging in a beach chair
  • Use the bathroom farthest from you
  • Dance for 10 minutes after work
  • Walk the dog
  • Try a few wall push-ups while you reheat your coffee or tea

Finally, use good sense. If you are at risk for hypoglycemia, check your blood sugar before exercising and carry your meter and glucose tablets with you during exercise. Modify what you do if you have certain health conditions. If you have any doubts if you’re fit enough to exercise, check with your healthcare provider.

Jill Weisenberger

Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, is a Nutrition, Culinary & Diabetes Expert, Wellcoach®-certified health and wellness coach, Freelance Writer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator. She's also the author of four books, including a best-seller. She's a nationally-recognized media expert in high demand for print and online interviews, as well as corporate and one-on-one nutritional counseling. Jill's philosophy is that nutrition science should be understandable, realistic and oh so delicious.

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  1. Luanne on November 21, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Exactly one year ago my doctor told me that l had diabetes but would give me six months to get my numbers down without medication. My neighbors and l decided we could all use some more exercise so we first started walking in our neighborhood. We grew bored with the scenery and moved to the state park down the road. Currently we walk 4-5 miles 5-6 days a week. My numbers are down significantly and l have lost 15 pounds and have not made any other significant changes in my diet. My diabetes is largely hereditary and not diet or weight related. My doctor says l can continue without medication. Yet another benefit is that my 9 year old German Shepherd has also lost weight and seems arthritis free which for that breed is amazing.

    • Jill Weisenberger on November 21, 2016 at 8:26 pm

      Wonderful! I love to hear these good news stories. Thanks for sharing. Being consistent with the exercise is hard, I’m sure. So glad it has paid off for you!

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