Understanding Exercise and Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition we constantly hear about and unfortunately that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Even though it is constantly talked about do you really understand what diabetes is? Diabetes is a disease that impairs the body’s ability to produce or respond to insulin – a hormone that regulates blood glucose or sugar levels. Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose, or sugar, for our bodies to use for energy (Kelly, n.d.). When you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use its own insulin as well as it should.

There are three different types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes only occurs during pregnancy, so we won’t really cover that today.

Before we get into talking about the different types of diabetes it is important to understand a few key words.

  • Blood glucose – the main sugar found in the blood and the body’s main source of energy. Also called blood sugar (Common Terms, 2017).
  • Blood glucose level – the amount of glucose in a given amount of blood. It is noted in milligrams in a deciliter, or mg/dL (Common Terms).
  • Glucose – one of the simplest forms of sugar (Common Terms).
  • Hyperglycemia – excessive blood glucose. Fasting hyperglycemia is blood glucose above a desirable level after a person has fasted for at least 8 hours. Postprandial hyperglycemia is blood glucose above a desirable level 1 to 2 hours after a person has eaten (Common Terms).
  • Hypoglycemia – a condition that occurs when one’s blood glucose is lower than normal, usually less than 70 mg/dL. Signs include hunger, nervousness, shakiness, perspiration, dizziness or lightheadedness, sleepiness, and confusion. If left untreated, hypoglycemia may lead to unconsciousness (Common Terms).


In type 1 diabetes the high blood glucose levels are caused by a lack of insulin. The pancreas, a gland that produces hormones and digestive enzymes, is attacked by the immune system in the beta cells. These beta cells are what produces insulin, and when destroyed the pancreas produces little if any insulin. Sometimes type 1 diabetes is called juvenile diabetes because the onset can happen in childhood (Kelly).  

While type 1 diabetes is not preventable, type 2 diabetes is. Type 2 diabetes happens when your body becomes resistant to insulin, to maintain proper blood glucose levels your pancreas makes more insulin. Over time your pancreas cannot keep up with insulin needs and manage blood glucose levels. You may also hear type 2 diabetes as adult onset diabetes because it typically onsets in middle-age or older adults.

In either case, it is important to maintain healthy blood glucose levels to prevent long term complications. One way to help manage diabetes is regular exercise.


How does exercise impact diabetes?

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes are different, having regular exercise habits is important for either case.

Although type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease with no cure, there is evidence that suggests that exercise can improve insulin sensitivity in type 1 diabetics. Becoming more insulin sensitive means that it takes less insulin to regulate blood glucose levels. Exercise will never replace insulin in a type 1 diabetic, it can help manage blood glucose levels.

Also, exercise can reduce the amount of glucose in your blood. Muscles use glucose without insulin when you’re exercising. So it doesn’t matter if you’re insulin resistant or if you don’t have enough insulin. During exercise, your muscles get the glucose they need, and in turn, your blood glucose level goes down.

Along with more immediate effects, exercise can lower the risk of developing those long term complications. Individuals with diabetes are at a higher risk for developing cardiovascular diseases. Regular exercise keeps your heart and arteries strong, for individuals with and without diabetes.

The American Diabetic Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week. This ends up being about 30 minutes, five days a week (Smith-Marsh, n.d.).

How can I safely exercise with diabetes?

Talk to your doctor. It is always a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. This goes for those who have been diagnosed with diabetes. You may need to make some changes to your diet and medications before starting your exercise plan. They can also let you know how often you should be checking your blood glucose levels before, during, and after exercise.

Check your blood glucose levels. Depending on what your doctor tells you it may be important to check your diabetes levels before exercise. This way you’ll know if you will need a snack before or during your exercise session. The American Diabetes Association recommends taking your blood sugar throughout your exercise session if you plan on exercising for more than an hour (Blood Glucose Control and Exercise, 2013).

Create a routine. Having a regular exercise, medication, and eating schedule can create a routine that may help prevent low blood sugar levels, aka hypoglycemia.

Add strength training. Strength training can improve blood glucose control when done at least twice a week. In one study strength training resulted in “46.3% increases in insulin action, a 7.1% reduction in fasting BG [blood glucose] levels, and significant loss of visceral fat” (Colberg, et al., 2010).

Keep snacks on hand. It is important to always have some carbohydrates on hand in case your blood sugar level gets too low. Having at least 15-20 grams of quick carbohydrates like sports drinks, juice or fruit that can quickly bring your blood glucose levels back up.

Ease into exercise. While you may want to go at full speed it is important to start slow and build up your exercise routine. This will reduce the risk of injury and you can be more consistent with your exercise.




Blood Glucose Control and Exercise. (2013). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/fitness/get-started-safely/blood-glucose-control-and-exercise.html


Colberg, S. R., Sigal, R. J., Fernhall, B., Regensteiner, J. G., Blissmer, B. J., Rubin, R. R., … Braun, B. (2010). Exercise and Type 2 Diabetes: The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association: joint position statement. Diabetes Care, 33(12), e147–e167. http://doi.org/10.2337/dc10-9990


Common Terms. (2017). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/common-terms/common-terms-l-r.html?referrer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.diabetes.org%2Fdiabetes-basics%2Fcommon-terms%2Fcommon-terms-f-k.html


Kelly, J. (n.d.). Diabetes . Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/media/presskits/aahd/diabetes.pdf


Leontis, L. M. (n.d.). Type 2 Diabetes and Exercise. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/type-2-diabetes/type-2-diabetes-exercise


Smith-Marsh, D. E. (n.d.). Type 1 Diabetes and Exercise. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/type-1-diabetes/type-1-diabetes-exercise


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