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Exercise

Regular exercise is good for everyone. If you have diabetes or are at risk of diabetes, it plays an even more important role in keeping you healthy. You can become more active by making small changes to your daily life.

For a person with diabetes, exercise helps:

  • insulin to work better and improve your diabetes management
  • control your weight
  • lower your blood pressure
  • reduce your risk of heart disease
  • reduce your stress levels.

Read more about the benefits of exercise and other things to consider in our fact sheet Physical activity.

Getting started

Before starting a regular exercise program see your doctor for a full medical examination. There are also two things you should be careful of:

Take it slow. You don’t want to start off too hard. If you are not used to the exercise, you will be sore the next day. This will not make the exercise experience enjoyable. Always increase the intensity of the exercise slowly. Your muscles will get stronger with time. Set goals that are right for you.

Get checked out. If you have any health problems, such as diabetes complications like retinopathy, nephropathy—before you start increasing the intensity of your exercise—you should talk to your doctor or an accredited exercise physiologist.

Make sure you wear comfortable, well-fitting shoes.

Suitable types of exercise

What kind of exercise is suitable differs for every person. Here are some suggestions for you to discuss with your doctor:

  • walking
  • swimming
  • dancing
  • water aerobics
  • gardening
  • golfing
  • cycling
  • exercise bike
  • treadmill

Increasing your general physical activity is also helpful, e.g., taking the stairs instead of the lift, or doing housework, or gardening.

Amount of exercise

Ideally, you should aim for about 30 minutes of exercise every day. This time can be divided into three 10-minute sessions spread across the day.

Intensity of exercise

You do not need to stretch yourself to benefit from exercise. Aim for moderate intensity.

Moderate-intensity activity will raise your heart rate, make you breathe faster and feel warmer. One way to tell if you’re working at a moderate intensity is if:

  • you can still talk
  • but you can’t sing the words to a song!

You should be slightly out of breath.

Exercise tips

  • Drink extra fluid before, during (only for any prolonged exercise) and after exercise to avoid dehydration. The fluid may be either water or, if extra carbohydrate is required, a sweetened drink. 250ml every 15 minutes or 1 litre of fluid per hour is recommended.
  • Take care of your feet when exercising.
  • Wear comfortable and well-fitting shoes.
  • Always inspect your feet before and after exercise.
  • Ulcers or other lesions on the feet are a danger for people with diabetes. It is important to avoid foot damage especially for middle-aged and elderly people
  • It is wise to avoid exercise that causes stress to the feet (e.g. running). Exercise that poses minimal weight or stress on the feet is ideal, such as riding an exercise bike or brisk walking in good footwear.
  • Take extra carbohydrate before and during exercise to prevent hypoglycaemia. Extra carbohydrate is often needed after exercise. Discuss adjusting your carbohydrate intake with your doctor or dietitian.
  • If recommended by your diabetes health care team, monitor your blood glucose levels before, if possible during (at least initially), and after exercise to assess your requirements for extra food.
  • You may need to reduce your insulin dose prior to exercise. Insulin adjustment varies with each individual. Discuss appropriate adjustments to suit your exercise schedule with your doctor or diabetes educator.
  • Wear sun block when exercising outdoors.

People with diabetes are generally discouraged from strenuous physical activity if they feel unwell or have ketones present in their blood or urine. In most cases, the presence of ketones before exercise indicates insufficient insulin in the body.

Exercise advice for people with type 1 diabetes

Regular exercise is an important part of your diabetes management. It helps your insulin to work more efficiently and assist with your blood glucose control. However, if your fasting blood glucose levels are greater than 14 mmol/L and urinary ketones it is best to avoid exercise until your blood glucose has settled. Exercise in these circumstances can elevate blood glucose and increase ketone production.