Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to manage and live well with diabetes.

Regular exercise has special advantages if you have type 2 diabetes. It can improve your body’s sensitivity to insulin and help manage your blood sugar levels. It can also help prevent or delay type 2 diabetes from developing. 

What is physical activity?

Physical activity is any form of movement that causes your body to burn calories. This can be as simple as walking, gardening, cleaning and many other activities you may already do.

During a physical activity, active muscles use up sugar as a source of energy. Regular physical activity helps to prevent sugar from building up in your blood.

Many people do not get enough physical activity to be healthy in today’s society. Technology and modern living have removed many regular forms of physical activity from our daily lives.

  • Cars replace walking and biking.
  • Elevators and escalators replace stairs.
  • Dishwashers replace doing dishes by hand.
  • Computers replace manual labour.
  • Snow blowers and ride-on lawn mowers replace physical yard work.
  • TV and computer games replace fun physical activities for both children and adults.

Because of modern living, it is important to think about being physically active each day. Try to avoid long periods of sitting by getting up briefly every 20 to 30 minutes.

Adding more physical activity to your day is one of the most important things you can do to help manage your diabetes and improve your health.

Did you know?

  • Low physical fitness is as strong a risk factor for mortality as smoking.
  • Fitness level is one of the strongest predictors of all-cause mortality in people with diabetes.
  • Physical activity can be as powerful as some medications, with fewer side effects.
  • Regular physical activity, along with healthy eating and weight control, can reduce your risk of diabetes complications.

Safety first

  • If you have been inactive for some time, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program that is more strenuous than brisk walking.
  • Make sure you wear comfortable, proper-fitting shoes, and your MedicAlert® bracelet or necklace.
  • Listen to your body. Speak to your doctor if you are very short of breath or have chest pain.
  • If you take insulin or medications that increase insulin levels, monitor your blood sugar before, during and many hours after your activity to see how it affects your blood sugar levels.
  • Carry some form of fast-acting carbohydrate with you in case you need to treat low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), for example, glucose tablets or Life Savers®.
  • If you live with type 1 diabetes, speak to your health-care provider about ways to reduce the risk of low blood sugar during and after exercise.

What kind of activity is best?

Both aerobic and resistance exercise are important for people living with diabetes.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is continuous exercise such as walking, bicycling or jogging that elevates breathing and heart rate.

Resistance exercise

Resistance exercise involves brief repetitive exercises with weights, weight machines, resistance bands or one’s own body weight to build muscle strength. If you decide to begin resistance exercise, you should first get some instruction from a qualified exercise specialist, a diabetes educator or exercise resource (such as a video or brochure) and start slowly.

Interval training

Interval training involves short periods of vigorous exercise, such as running or cycling, alternating with short recovery periods at low-to-moderate intensity or rest from 30 seconds to 3 minutes each.

How much is enough?

Your goal should be to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week (e.g. 30 minutes, five days a week).

You may have to start slowly, with as little as five to 10 minutes of exercise per day, gradually building up to your goal. The good news, though, is that multiple, shorter exercise sessions of at least 10 minutes each are probably as useful as a single longer session of the same intensity.

You may consider interval training to increase your fitness level if you have type 2 diabetes, or to lower your risk of low blood sugar if you have type 1 diabetes.

If you are able and when you are ready, try adding resistance exercises like lifting weights two to three times a week.

Physical activity and diabetes can be a complex issue. If you need help and/or advice on how to become physically active, you can ask your doctor or a member of your diabetes health-care team for support that is right for you.

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