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Exercising when you have diabetes

Young or old, male or female, diabetes or not, exercising regularly is one of the best things anyone can do for their health.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), exercise can help control blood glucose (sugar) and improve your body's response to insulin. It can also help you manage diabetes-related health conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

And there's more: Exercise can relieve stress, help you sleep better and build the strength, flexibility and endurance you need to perform daily activities.

Physical activity can provide great benefits for people with diabetes at any age. And the earlier you start, the longer you can enjoy the benefits.

What types of exercise can you do?

For the most part, having diabetes doesn't mean you need to restrict your activities.

Almost any kind of exercise—from gardening to running marathons—is appropriate if you don't have a health condition that rules it out.

Talking to your doctor before you start an exercise program can help you identify any potential problems.

If you have eye trouble, for example, you may need to avoid lifting heavy weights. Studies have shown that lifting weights can increase pressure around the eyeball, possibly raising your risk of glaucoma, which is already higher in people with diabetes than in others. And if nerve damage has made your feet numb, swimming may be better than walking.

You should also talk to your doctor before taking on an exercise program if you are pregnant, aren't used to exercising or have a chronic health problem, such as heart disease.

Whatever you do, be safe

Even after your doctor clears you for activity, you'll still need to follow some precautions every time you exercise.

Physical activity can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in people who take insulin and some—but not all—diabetes medicines. At its worst, hypoglycemia can cause you to pass out or have a seizure. The danger is present while you exercise and for up to a day later.

Exercise is often a good way to lower high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). But if you have ketones in your urine, exercise can cause high blood sugar to go even higher. If left untreated, hyperglycemia can lead to diabetic coma.

For safety's sake, follow these recommendations to make sure your blood sugar is controlled when you exercise:

  • If you use insulin, ask your doctor whether you should change your dosage before you exercise.
  • Check your blood glucose just before exercise and make sure it's in a healthy range. If it's not, follow your healthcare provider's instructions for bringing it into balance before you begin your activity.
  • If you'll be exercising for more than an hour, check your blood glucose at regular intervals. You may need snacks before you finish.
  • Take your blood glucose meter and wear diabetes medical identification (such as a bracelet or necklace) when you exercise. If you exercise with others, tell them what to do if you show signs of hypoglycemia, such as shaking, weakness, confusion and irritability. Always carry food or glucose tablets so that you'll be ready to treat low blood sugar.
  • Protect your feet during exercise with socks that wick moisture away (avoid cotton) and comfortable, well-fitting shoes that are designed for the activity you're doing. Check your feet for cuts, sores, bumps or redness before and after you exercise.
  • Immediately after exercise, check to see how activity affected your blood glucose; test again several hours later. Everyone's blood glucose levels respond differently to exercise. Once you find out how yours respond, use that information to prevent low or high blood sugar levels from occurring the next time you exercise.

Reviewed 11/8/2023

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