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Managing diabetes with exercise

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

What kind of exercise is safe - and fun if you have diabetes? And how can you stay motivated after that first flush of inspiration fades?

For the person who has been doing no exercise experts recommend starting with something that's comfortable and enjoyable and can be maintained. Seek medical advice before starting a new exercise programme.

When it comes to managing a lifelong condition like diabetes, it makes sense to think long-term. It’s all about lifestyle changes to protect yourself from diabetic blood vessel and nerve damage. Becoming more active can help you control blood sugar levels, feel good and lighten the load on painful feet and legs, especially if you’re overweight. Many people with diabetes experience diabetic nerve pain, known as diabetic neuropathy, in their feet, legs, arms or hands. There's evidence that exercise can help to control peripheral neuropathy.

These tips can help you start an exercise plan and stick to it.

Before you start: Safety first

  • If you have nerve pain, check with your doctor that it’s fine to start any new form of exercise. You don’t want to make diabetic neuropathy worse and most people with diabetes are at higher risk of heart and circulation problems, so your doctor may want to check your heart, eyes and feet.
  • Be cautious about exercising if your blood sugar is higher than normal. Check your blood sugar before and after exercise to see how your body and medicines respond to different kinds of activity.

Choose low-impact exercise

Knowing you are doing something safe - especially if you have painful neuropathy or loss of sensation, removes one barrier to exercise, fear. Choose something that is low-impact or even non-weight-bearing. This could be aerobic classes where you’re sitting in a chair or using an exercise ball. Other options include:

  • Swimming. Water supports your muscles, bones and joints as you swim, which is especially helpful if you are overweight or have diabetic nerve pain in your feet. Swimming has been a favourite with exercise experts over the years as it avoids the pounding on your feet, knees and hips that you get from a high-impact sport like jogging.
  • Yoga. Yoga may suit people who need to be more controlled in their movements and who should not be pounding on the pavement.
  • Cycling. This is a safe low-impact sport, as long as you don’t fall off the bike. You can either cycle outside and enjoy the fresh air and scenery, or you can use an exercise bike at home or in a health club.

Exercise for 150 minutes a week

The good news is that all sorts of everyday activities count as exercise. For example, vigorous work in the garden, such as raking up, and housework like vacuuming, count as exercise.

  • Start with a short warm-up period to help prepare your muscles, heart and lungs. Gentle stretches for five to 20 minutes may help reduce injury.
  • Build up slowly over time, so you keep feeling successful and having fun.
  • Don't worry if, some days, you can’t do a full 30 minutes all at once. You can meet your daily goal of 30 minutes with 10 minutes of gardening in the morning, 10 minutes of vacuuming after lunch and a brisk 10-minute walk in the evening.
    Start with simple things, such as parking further away from your destination or using the stairs instead of a lift whenever you can.
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