Fight Diabetes with a Healthy Dose of Exercise - Virtua Article

Fight Diabetes with a Healthy Dose of Exercise

By Lois Gerst, RN, BSN, CDE, Certified Diabetes Educator and Manager
Virtua Nutrition & Diabetes Care

If you’ve been recently diagnosed with diabetes, you’re probably most concerned about what that means for your diet and what medications you may need to help control blood sugar. But one of the most vital parts of any healthy lifestyle, including diabetes management, is exercise.  

Exercise can have a profound impact on your quality of life, improving your body and your mind. It can help boost your mood and energy, and help you lose weight. But importantly, it also helps lower cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.

But, before you strap on your brand new sneakers and hit the ground running, make sure you talk to your diabetes professional about what limitations you may encounter as a patient with diabetes. In some cases, conditions associated with diabetes (like retinopathy and neuropathy) limit the type of exercises you can safely perform. You also may need to take a stress test to ensure that you can begin exercising without high risk.

Once cleared, here are some great ideas to get you moving.


Simply put, aerobic activity increases your heart rate and works the larger muscles. If exercise hasn’t been a part of your normal daily routine, you can start small by walking 5–10 minutes every day. Walking with a friend or the dog also can help motivate you. Other aerobic activities that you might enjoy include:

  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Dancing
  • Chair exercises

The American Diabetes Association recommends moderate-intensity aerobic activity for at least 150 minutes every week. Breaking that time up into daily exercise, or even hourly bursts, is the best approach. Aim for at least 3 times a week. If you’re unable to exercise for 30 minutes all at once in a day, you can break it down into 2–3 mini-sessions.

Most importantly, break the sedentary cycle. Recent research suggests that everyone, including people with diabetes, should be encouraged to reduce the amount of time spent sitting still (e.g., watching TV, working at a computer). Be sure to interrupt extended sedentary periods (greater than 90 minutes) by briefly standing or walking. You can even use watches and smart phones to set alarms to remind you.

If you’re lucky enough to have a Fitbit or other fitness tracker, these can be great motivators and will help you feel a sense of accomplishment and reward for adding more physical activity into your daily routine. Furthermore, some Fitbit/Garman wrist devices automatically tell people to “MOVE” when they're sedentary too long.

Strength Training

Incorporate strength training with light weights or exercise bands to build strong muscles and bones. Functional exercises that use weights can help with everyday activities like carrying groceries. You can even do these right in front of the television. By building muscle, your body can burn more calories, even at rest.

Stretching and Flexibility

As you increase your daily activity to the recommended 30 minutes per day, it will become more important to warm up and cool down. Gently stretching your muscles can help prevent injury, keep your joints flexible, and help prevent soreness and tightness following exercise. You also may enjoy yoga and Pilates, which can help build strength and raise your heart rate, depending on the intensity.

Exercise and Blood Sugar

It’s important to understand how exercise impacts your blood sugar. The following guidelines can help:

  • Always carry your glucose monitor and consider testing your blood sugar before and after exercising, especially if you take insulin or certain diabetes medications.
  • Keep a fast-acting source of carbohydrates handy in case of low blood sugar, especially if you fall near or below 70 mg/dL. A 15-gram serving is a good start, although you may need more if your sugar falls too low. Examples of a fast acting and portable source of glucose include: 3-4 glucose tablets, a 4-6 ounce juice box, or a small box of raisins (about 2 tablespoons).
  • Remember that your muscles are still working after you’ve stopped exercising and could cause low blood sugar hours later.

Also, all three of Virtua’s health and fitness centers support the Next Steps program, which is designed to assist Virtua patients with a new exercise routine. During the 8-week program, you’re monitored by a trainer and provided with a physical assessment—no membership required.

Virtua is Here to Help

If you really aren’t sure where to start or how to begin, call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 to make an appointment with a Virtua certified diabetes educator. We can help you get started, and come up with a plan that works with your individual needs, preferences, and limitations.

Updated February 15, 2017


Classes & Support 

The outpatient diabetes program at Virtua has received education recognition by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). 

View All Diabetes Classes and Support Groups

You May Also Like

Virtua Fitness

Fitness and Exercise

A regular fitness routine can help you strengthen and tone muscles, shed a few pounds and even reduce stress and anxiety. We make it easy to get started and achieve your goals.

Read More
7 Smartphone Apps to Help You Manage Diabetes

7 Smartphone Apps to Help You Manage Diabetes

If you have diabetes and have a smartphone or tablet, here are a few easy-to-use apps that are designed to make managing diabetes a little easier.

Read More
Your fork and feet vs diabetes

Your Fork and Feet vs Diabetes

Diabetes is a serious condition, but individuals can reduce their risk of developing complications.

Watch Video