5 Best Exercises for People with Diabetes

Aerobic activity can lower your need for insulin

Senior man swimmer with towel

If you have diabetes, exercise offers surprising benefits. As it lowers your stress levels, it lowers your blood sugar level.

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How much exercise is right for you? For people with diabetes, The National Institutes of Health  (NIH) recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week. Exercise is so important for people with diabetes that the American Diabetes Association recommends that these patients miss no more than two days of aerobic exercise in a row.

5 exercises for people with diabetes

There are many exercises that will benefit people with diabetes. Here are five we recommend:

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  1. Walking — Because anyone can do it almost anywhere, walking is the most popular exercise and one we highly recommend for people with diabetes. Thirty minutes to one hour of brisk walking, three times each week is a great, easy way to increase your physical activity.
  1. Tai Chi —This Chinese form of exercise uses slow, smooth body movements to relax the mind and body. In 2009, researchers at the University of Florida studied 62 Korean women assigned to one of two groups—a control group and an exercise group that began a regular practice of Tai Chi. Those who completed the tai chi sessions showed significant improvement in blood sugar control. They also reported increased vitality, energy and mental health.
  1. Yoga — A traditional form of exercise, yoga incorporates fluid movements that build flexibility, strength and balance. It is helpful for people with a variety of chronic conditions, including diabetes. It lowers stress and improves nerve function, which leads to an increased state of mental health and wellness. According to the ADA, yoga may improve blood glucose levels due to improved muscle mass.
  1. Dancing —Dancing is not only great for your body. The mental work to remember dance steps and sequences actually boosts brain power and improves memory.  For those with diabetes, it is a fun and exciting way to increase physical activity, promote weight loss, improve flexibility, lower blood sugar and reduce stress. Chair dancing, which incorporates the use of a chair to support people with limited physical abilities, makes dancing an option for many people. In just 30 minutes, a 150-pound adult can burn up to 150 calories. 
  1. Swimming — Swimming stretches and relaxes your muscles and doesn’t put pressure on your joints, which is great for people with diabetes. For those with diabetes or at risk for developing diabetes, studies show it improves cholesterol levels, burns calories and lowers stress levels. To get the most benefit from swimming, we recommend that you swim at least three times a week for at least ten minutes and gradually increase the length of the workout. Make sure to have a snack and monitor blood sugars. Lastly, let the lifeguard know that you have diabetes before you get in the pool.

Exercise safety

Before starting an exercise program, talk to your doctor to be sure the exercise you choose is safe and appropriate for your type of diabetes. Remember to start slowly, especially if you have not been physically active for a while.

Below, find other safety tips:

  • Check your blood sugar before and after exercise until you are aware of how your body responds to exercise.
  • Whether you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, make sure your blood sugar is less than 250 mg/dl before exercising. For people with Type 1 diabetes, exercising with a blood sugar higher than 250 mg/dl may cause ketoacidosis, which can be a life threatening condition resulting from a lack of insulin in the blood. 
  • Do a five-minute warm-up before and a five-minute cool down after exercising.
  • Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise to prevent dehydration.
  • Be prepared for any episodes of low blood sugar.  Have something available that can bring sugar levels up, such as hard candy, glucose tablets or 4 oz. of juice.
  • Wear a medical alert ID band. If an emergency occurs, EMS will know how to treat you properly. 
  • Always carry a cell phone.
  • Avoid exercising in extremely hot or cold temperatures.
  • Wear proper shoes and socks to protect your feet.

Listen to your body. If you become short of breath, dizzy or lightheaded, stop exercising. Report any unusual problems you experience to your doctor.


Sue Cotey and Andrea Harris, RNs

Sue Cotey, RN, CDE, and Andrea Harris, RN, CDE, are Diabetes Educators with the Lennon Diabetes Center at the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Health Center. Sue is the Program Coordinator.