Exercise Plans for People with Diabetes

Take your diabetes complications into account.

While people with diabetes should definitely incorporate exercise into their routine, complications associated with the condition can require modifications, or simply taking it easy sometimes. Indications that you might need to take the day off include soaring blood sugar levels, tingling or sharp pains (especially in the legs), illness, difficulty breathing, or the presence of ketones in your urine.

Certain diabetes complications can also mean that it’s unsafe to work out—or that you should at least avoid specific exercises. Here are some complications that commonly occur in tandem with diabetes and how to work around them:

  • Heart disease: Limit yourself to low- or moderate-intensity workouts. This includes brisk walks, yard work, or routines centered around flexibility and stretching. Avoid isometric exercises and working out in extreme temperatures.
  • High blood pressure: Again, avoid strenuous exercise and isometric workouts. Moderate activities are suitable for patients with high blood pressure but always consult with your doctor first. Water workouts are often suitable for patients like this.
  • Peripheral neuropathy: Always be aware of any wounds or ulcers on your limbs, especially the feet. Injuries like these are slow to heal on diabetes patients, and certain exercises can make this problem worse. When any injuries are present, it’s especially important to avoid any high-impact activities or exercises that involve being on your feet for long, intensive periods of time. Instead, opt for low-impact activities, like cycling or water routines. Walking is fine, as long as no wounds are currently present.
  • Autonomic neuropathy: Be extremely cautious about staying hydrated and avoiding the heat. Talk to your doctor about whether or not a stress test is appropriate for you, and opt for activities that let you gradually change position to avoid dizziness and passing out. Give yourself extra time to work up to the desired length for any workout.
  • Retinopathy: Again, stay away from strenuous activities. Avoid things that require holding your breath for long periods of time during strength training activities. Exercises that keep your head below your abdomen are also not recommended. Gentle, low-impact activities are best for diabetes patients with this complication.

Pay attention to your blood glucose levels.

No matter the kind of diabetes you have, physical activity is going to be a major helping hand for a healthier you. It’s going to help you manage your weight, fight off complications of diabetes, and it might even make you feel better. However, there are some special considerations you have to make—particularly when starting a new exercise program.

Increasing your activity levels is going to increase the amount of energy your body uses. If you have type 2 diabetes, when you start working out your muscles are going to make sure they have enough glucose for energy, so the levels of glucose in your blood are going to go down. What’s more, since you’re resistant, it’s important to note that resistance decreases while you’re working out. All of this means you want to find out how your body responds to exercise pretty quickly after you begin.


While exercise will help make it easier to manage diabetes and blood sugar levels—the impact of exercise on glucose levels can continue for up to a full day—you simply must know what to expect. This is especially true if you’re taking . If you aren’t on , checking your glucose levels before and after your workout is usually sufficient.

If you have type 1 diabetes, you’re at a much higher risk of triggering hypoglycemia with exercise. Of course, all of this depends on how long and how intensely you work out—as well as what your glucose level is before you start. Check your blood sugar before you get going, while you’re active, and after you’ve finished your workout. Just like with type 2 diabetes, glucose levels should decrease while you’re exercising. You might need to start your workout with a snack, and it’s a good idea to keep another on hand as well if you need to raise your glucose levels in a hurry. Once you’ve gotten a routine down, you’ll begin to understand what you need to do to keep levels in normal range, but at first, keep a close eye on your blood sugar levels.

Minimize your risk of injury.

Possibly the most important thing you can do to get started exercising is to get an expert’s opinion. Talk to your doctor about everything working out with diabetes—from what your activity goals should be to how you’re going to need to adjust your diet.

You should also undergo a physical exam before starting a new exercise routine. It’s important to know what else is going on in your body, like neuropathy, that can affect the way you exercise. A physical can help you figure out when and how it’s going to be best for you to work out based on your particular case of diabetes, medical history, diet, and medication regimen.

Once you get the doctor’s go-ahead, a few basic safety hints can keep your workout sessions from being unsafe.

First of all, you may need to adjust your meals to account for your increased activity. Your doctor or dietician can help you learn how to make those needed adjustments safely. The more active you are, the more fuel—calories and carbohydrates, in particular—your body uses.

If you’re trying to lose weight—which is usually recommended for type 2 diabetes patients—it may be enough to simply monitor your blood sugar closely to be sure you’re staying in normal ranges. However, if you’re exercising to get healthier, but don’t want to lose any weight, it may take some testing to find an appropriate carbohydrate intake level to match your energy output.

Another important thing to be careful about is staying hydrated. Water, of course, is going to be your best option. Sports drinks can be helpful if you’re working out for an extended period of time. However, they can have a lot of sugar in them. You may need to mix one with water so that you get the benefits without a dangerous blood glucose spike.

Finally, keep an eye on your feet. Get some nice sneakers appropriate to the type of activity you’re doing, and be sure to finish your workout with a foot exam to make sure no blisters or other wounds have cropped up. Since diabetes can prevent proper healing, especially in your limbs, it’s important to catch injuries like this quickly before complications arise.

Be realistic about your workouts.

Even if your doctor has said you can work out, you still don’t want to jump straight into an intensive, three-hour exercise routine. Patients with diabetes often haven’t had a regular workout schedule for some time, so it’s important to start slow.

If you’re particularly new to exercise, a ten-minute walk may be enough to start with. Slowly add time and intensity to your workout from there, until you’ve reached the ability to work out vigorously for half an hour to an hour without feeling like you’re going to pass out.

Strength training has been shown to help increase sensitivity to and help lower blood glucose levels, so it should definitely factor into your exercise routine. However, this doesn’t mean you should aim to be a bodybuilder. Keep your goals attainable—incorporate weights slowly and never push yourself past what your body will safely allow.

Most importantly, remember your body is different from everyone else’s. And that means you have to make allowances sometimes. Only you know what your body is capable of, and if a workout doesn’t feel right, chances are that it might not be.

Find Ways to Stay Motivated

It’s easy to get started with a new exercise routine, but it’s not so easy to stay that way. And even though you may realize working out is good for your diabetes—it’s simply not an enjoyable activity for everyone. If you know you’re one of those people, make an effort to put methods in place to keep your motivation up.

Perhaps most importantly, remember all the good things you’re doing for your body. Diabetes increases the risk of a wide variety of health issues, but exercise can decrease that risk significantly. Physical activity can improve circulation, reduce the chance of cardiovascular disease, help you maintain a healthy weight, and even make your diabetes easier to control. Remind yourself of this frequently—and remind yourself of what an awesome job you’re doing.

Find a workout buddy to spur you on. Someone who is at a relatively similar level of physical abilities means you can more easily match your workout. However, working out with someone more advanced than you may provide that extra push you need to keep improving. If you’re prone to blood sugar crashes or are concerned about something happening while exercising, make sure your partner knows what to do in an emergency.

Other ways to keep your motivation up include making a plan. Set up goals, and devise a plan to achieve them. Keeping an exercise journal will let you see how far you’ve come and how well you’re doing—or help you notice when you might not be doing as well as you’d like to be.

Signing up for a class or getting a gym membership means you’re paying to do something, which can help encourage you to stay involved, so you aren’t wasting money. Additionally, working with a professional trainer in a gym setting may decrease your risk of injury—especially if they have experience working with diabetes patients.

Featured Image: depositphotos/ kjekol

Posted on May 5, 2023