Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(2):652

How does exercise help my diabetes?

Exercise can help control your weight and may lower your blood sugar level. It also lowers your risk of heart disease, which is common in people who have diabetes. Regular exercise can also improve your overall health and well-being.

What kind of exercise should I do?

Talk to your doctor about what exercise is right for you. Warm up before exercise and cool down after. If you haven't exercised in a while, start slowly and gradually increase the time and intensity. A good goal is to slowly work up to exercising for at least 30 minutes, 4 to 6 times a week.

Many doctors recommend aerobic exercise, like walking, jogging, aerobic dancing and bicycling. It makes you breathe more deeply and makes your heart work harder. If you have problems with the nerves in your feet or legs, your doctor may want you to do exercises that are not hard on your feet, like swimming or chair exercises.

Are there risks if I exercise?

Yes, but the benefits outweigh the risks. One risk is that your blood sugar can become too low (called hypoglycemia) after you exercise. You may need to check your blood sugar level before and after exercising. (Your doctor can tell you what your glucose level should be before you exercise.) If your glucose level is too low or too high before you exercise, don't start exercising until the level improves.

Exercise can be risky for people with foot problems or heart disease. This is why it's important for you to talk with your doctor before starting to exercise.

How will I know if my blood sugar is too low while I'm exercising?

Hypoglycemia usually occurs gradually, so you need to pay attention to how you're feeling when you exercise. You may feel a change in your heartbeat, suddenly sweat more, feel shaky or anxious, or feel hungry. When you feel this way, you should stop exercising and follow your doctor's advice about how to treat hypoglycemia. Your doctor may suggest you keep candy or juice on hand to treat hypoglycemia.

Do I need to drink more fluids when I exercise?

Yes. When you're exercising, your body needs more fluid to keep you cool. By the time you feel thirsty, you may already be getting dehydrated (not enough fluid in your body). You should drink plenty of water and other fluids before, during and after exercise.

Exercise checklist for people with diabetes

  • Talk to your doctor about the right exercise for you.

  • Check your blood sugar level before and after exercising.

  • Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercising.

  • Warm up before exercising and cool down afterward.

  • Have a snack handy in case your blood sugar level drops.

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