What’s the best exercise for Diabetics?

Your body and your Diabetes diagnosis is unique. Your body’s medical history and context is unique. Here’s what might be the best exercise for you, as a Diabetic.

what exercises are good for diabetics

Remember that exercise goes hand in hand with your nutrition. Balance your physical activity with beneficial nutrition for optimal results.

Why is it so hard to manage Diabetes and exercise?

Diabetes isn’t straightforward. Depending on the Type of Diabetes you have, you need to be mindful of secondary conditions, different and varying severities of symptoms, the effects of your medication and its side effects. Not every day is going to be a good day for strenuous exercise. A balance is required, between pushing your body and being kind to yourself. If you push yourself too hard, you could faint or develop other muscular and joint issues.

Does your Diabetes Type affect what exercises you can do?

Type 1 Diabetes usually involves a genetic predisposition, so there’s no control over if or when it will appear in someone’s life. Type 2 Diabetes is considered a lifestyle condition that results from poor lifestyle choices, primarily around diet and exercise. Gestational Diabetes exercises need to be discussed with your doctor, nurse or clinic team.

Exercise for Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes can be managed through various forms of exercise. Aerobic training, for example, improves cardiorespiratory fitness levels (heart and lungs) while also reducing insulin resistance and regulating lipid levels (Colberg et al., 2016). High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is advised particularly for glycaemic control in Type 1 Diabetics.

Exercise for Type 2 Diabetes

Regular exercise can actually prevent the onset of Type 2 Diabetes (Colberg et al., 2016), but if a diagnosis has already been reached, these are the benefits of exercise specific to this condition:

  • Lower HbA1C levels.
  • Lower triglyceride levels.
  • Regular blood pressure range.
  • Reduced insulin resistance.
  • Reduced body fat.

Cruickshank (2020) recommends getting started with these 10 exercises and gradually building up to a personal goal, all the while making sure to consult your doctor, nurse or clinic team about the changes you want to make, the effect it has on your body and how you feel:

  • Walking, power walking, jogging, and running.
  • Cycling.
  • Swimming.
  • Any team sport.
  • Aerobic dancing.
  • Weightlifting.
  • Resistance band exercises.
  • Calisthenics.
  • Yoga.
  • Pilates.

HIIT is also popular with Type 2 Diabetics because it promotes muscular ability to take in oxygen from the bloodstream, while enhancing Insulin sensitivity and regulating glycaemic control (Colberg et al., 2016).

Exercise for Gestational Diabetes

Gestational Diabetes only occurs in pregnant women. A standard prenatal exercise plan should be adapted for the needs of the woman going through this. It’s absolutely critical to consult with medical teams on what to do in the case of this Diabetes Type because of the variances in pregnancy journeys. If there are any complications such as a weakened placenta, differently developed foetus or unusual umbilical cord positioning, it could be fatal for both mother and child to undertake any intensity of exercise without consultation and/or supervision.

What types of Diabetic exercise helps with other conditions?

Patino (2018) cites Dr Nathan Wong in her article, confirming that Diabetes is not just about blood sugar levels. High blood sugar levels bring the greatest risk of cardiovascular complications because it causes damage to arteries and other blood vessels. Other secondary conditions of Diabetes that you can manage effectively through exercise include hypertension and high cholesterol.

With all this in mind, then, it should be reasonable to expect that any exercise plan you undertake to address your Diabetes can assist with other health conditions, particularly those related to heart health.

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercises

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercises link your health as a Diabetic to your heart health. It strengthens your heart muscles and improves blood flow in your body, especially to extremities where Diabetic neuropathy can occur. Aerobic exercises also increase mitochondrial density, Insulin sensitivity, oxidative enzymes, compliance and reactivity of blood vessels, lung function and immune function (Colberg et al., 2016).

Examples include:

  • Walking.
  • Jogging.
  • Running.
  • Swimming.
  • Cycling.
  • Dancing.

All these types of exercise have proven to lower mortality rates in people living with both Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes.

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Strength or resistance training

Patino (2018) cites Dr Stanley Bassin’s insight that strength training has a direct and significant effect on Diabetes symptoms. Resistance training builds muscle mass, improves body composition ratios, stabilises mental health, increases bone mineral density, heightens Insulin sensitivity and regulates blood pressure range, and lipid profiles (Colberg et al., 2016). Recommended equipment includes:

  • Hand held weights.
  • Weight machines.
  • Resistance bands.

In situations where equipment isn’t available or accessible, you can try these:

  • Heavy gardening.
  • Housework that involves lifting heavy objects, such as hanging laundry out to dry (bend your knees, not your back).
  • Planking.
  • Push-ups.
  • Sit-ups.
  • Squats.
  • Lunges.

Flexibility and balance exercises

Flexibility and balance are the final variables in the fitness equation (Migala, 2020). Flexibility exercises keep your joints limber and allow your muscles to take advantage of their full range of motion (Patino, 2018). Balance exercises improve your gait and posture (Colberg et al., 2016). Altogether, you’ll be less likely to get hurt while doing other types of exercise. Examples include:

  • Yoga.
  • Tai Chi.
  • Pilates
  • Sports drill stretches (should be supervised by a coach or personal trainer, especially for your first time).

How long should Diabetic people exercise for?

It’s recommended that Diabetics schedule cardiovascular or aerobic exercise for at least 150 minutes every week, with an additional set of strength training activities twice a week (Patino, 2018). Your flexibility exercises can be interwoven before, during, and after, cardiovascular exercises and circuits/sets of strength training and calisthenics.

Do Diabetics need medical clearance for exercise plans?

Depending on the severity of your Diabetes diagnosis, and any potential comorbidities, you may or may not need formal medical clearance. It is always advisable to discuss this with your doctor, nurse or clinic team. If you have medical aid, you can also contact your advisors to ask for input. You may have benefit programmes you can take advantage of, such as discounts on gym membership subscriptions and physical fitness assessments.


Colberg, SR, Castorino, K, Dempsey, PC, Dunstan, DW, Horton, ES, Riddell, MC, Ronald, JS, Tate, DF, and Yardley, JE. 2016. Physical activity/exercise and diabetes: a position statement of the american diabetes association. Diabetes care. 39(11):November. pp2065-2079. Available online at: https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/39/11/2065 [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Cruickshank, H. 2020 10 exercises for diabetes: walking, yoga, swimming, and more. Healthline. Article online. 29 May. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/type-2-diabetes/top-exercises [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Leontis, LM. 2019. Type 2 diabetes and exercise: exercise makes it easier to control your diabetes. Endocrineweb. Article online. Available at: https://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/type-2-diabetes/type-2-diabetes-exercise#:~:text=If%20you’re%20insulin%20resistant%2C%20exercise%20actually%20makes%20your%20insulin,term%20complications%2C%20especially%20heart%20problems. [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Migala, J. 2020. 6 great exercises for people with diabetes. Everyday health. Article online. 20 April. Available at: https://www.everydayhealth.com/type-2-diabetes/living-with/great-exercises-for-people-with-diabetes/ [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Patino, E. 2018. Managing diabetes and heart health: what to include in your exercise plan. Everyday health. Article online. 16 January. Available at: https://www.everydayhealth.com/hs/managing-diabetes-heart-health/what-to-include-in-your-exercise-plan/ [Accessed 23 June 2020].

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