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Diabetes and exercise

Being physically active is good for diabetes. Whether you feel able to go for a run or a swim, or can manage some arm stretches or on-the-spot walking while the kettle boils, it all makes a difference. 

For more ideas on what you can do at home, watch our video showing how some people with diabetes move more. 


Two ladies with diabetes walking together and enjoying exercising

If you're looking for a way to introduce more movement into your life, check out our new collection of free resources and get active in a way that suits you and your lifestyle. 

Find out more

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We know that diabetes can affect you in unpredictable ways, making it hard to know how you’ll feel or what type of activity you should do. That’s why it’s important to remember that the small victories count. It doesn’t matter if you try something new or just do that little bit more of something you already do. Each step you take to moving more can help with managing your condition.  


Here we’ll take you through the benefits of being active when you have diabetes, and help you better understand your feelings towards moving more. We’ll share different types of activities to try, whether you’re at home, have diabetes complications, or just need some inspiration. And we’ll also look at how being more active can affect your blood glucose (sugar) levels.  

Benefits of exercising for diabetes

There are many benefits of being active when you have type 1, type 2 or other types of diabetes. Moving more can: 

  • help the body use insulin better by increasing insulin sensitivity 
  • help you look after your blood pressure, because high blood pressure means you’re more at risk of diabetes complications 
  • help to improve cholesterol (blood fats) to help protect against problems like heart disease  
  • help you lose weight if you need to, and keep the weight off after you’ve lost it 
  • give you energy and help you sleep 
  • help your joints and flexibility 
  • help your mind as well as your body - exercise releases endorphins, which you could think of as happy hormones. Being active is proven to reduce stress levels and improve low mood.   
  • help people with type 2 diabetes improve their HbA1c. In some cases, this can help people with the condition go into remission.  

It’s important to remember that being active is even more beneficial if you’re also making healthier food choices, not smoking and getting enough sleep.

Your feelings about diabetes and exercise 

Although there are many benefits to moving more, we know that you may be anxious about how your body will cope and how exercise can affect your diabetes. Some people think that moving more will be too tiring, or make their condition harder to manage, and others are worried about their blood sugar levels.  

There may also be days when you don’t feel like doing much, or the weather gets you down and you don't feel motivated to move.  These worries and feelings are all understandable, but it’s important to remember that you don’t have to deal with these feelings alone. We’re here to help, and we've got lots of information about emotional support and getting active. 

We’ve also put together guidance and advice to help you feel confident managing your blood sugar levels when moving more, and we’ll show you lots of different activities to try - especially for when you’re home, or when you don’t feel like doing much. Plus, we’ll show you where you can get more support with exercising if you need it. 

Move more Facebook Live with our experts 

Watch our Senior Physical Activity Advisor, Neil Gibson, and Senior Clinical Advisor, Emma Elvin, talk about moving more when you have diabetes. As well as answering questions from viewers, they cover topics ranging from checking your blood sugar levels when exercising, to what you should eat and how we can support you to get active. 

“The thought of being more active might be overwhelming, but once you start people have told me how great it makes them feel. You won’t just see the benefits now. It’s about building a healthier future too - we know being active helps protect your body against diabetes complications and can help you lead a happier and healthier life."
– Emma Elvin, our Senior Clinical Advisor

Best type of exercise when you have diabetes

There isn’t one type of activity that’s best for everyone with diabetes - it’s about finding what works for you. This can depend on lots of things, like what you enjoy, where you are and how much time you have. Try to think about how activity can fit in with your life, not the other way around.  

In general, it’s best to try and do a mixture of different types of activity. This is because different types of activity have different benefits, and use different parts of your body.  

For example, swimming can make you breathe harder and raise your heart rate. This is good for your heart health because your heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body. When you have diabetes, keeping your heart healthy is even more important because you’re more at risk of complications, including heart disease. 

Gardening, however, can help with strength, and doing something like digging can help the body use insulin better.  

Some people can find that doing the same thing can get boring after a while, so we’ve put together a list of ideas to give you inspiration or to help you get started.

Diabetes UK have partnered with Sport England to take part in the We Are Undefeatable (WAU) campaign to support people with diabetes to exercise

And we’ve also teamed up with Sport England and other charity partners to help promote moving more across the UK in the We Are Undefeatable campaign. 

If you have diabetes complications or other health conditions that affect how much activity you can do, it can be difficult to know what exercises to try. That’s why we’ve put together more detailed advice about exercising if you have complications

If you’re feeling worried, talk to your GP or healthcare team first. They will be able to give you advice on how you can adjust things to suit you. 

“You don’t have to do traditional exercise, simply moving more is good for your health and your diabetes. It’s amazing how quickly small changes can add up and lead to a physically active life.”
– Neil Gibson, our Senior Physical Activity Advisor 

Keeping active at home 

If you're spending time at home, there are lots of ways to get active and keep moving that much more. How about doing: 

  • on-the-spot walking during TV ad breaks 
  • stretches for your arms and legs whilst sat in a chair 
  • hoovering your home or washing your car 
  • using cans of food as weights 
  • gardening - if you have a garden. If you don’t, do you have any house plants you can water, prune and re-pot while standing up? 

It might help to pop some music on while you’re doing this, especially if you’re not in the mood to move. It can stop you concentrating on the time and help you feel motivated. For more inspiration, watch Zahoor explain how he manages to move more around his home in this We Are Undefeatable video

If you need to start off at an easier pace, try standing during a TV advert. If you can manage it, work towards standing for the whole advert break, then to walking on the spot during adverts. You can mix this up by doing stretches instead, or jogging on the spot while the ads are on. This will help you get your steps up. 

Everyone’s different, and some people find video workouts helpful to keep them motivated and follow a routine. There are lots to choose from, but the NHS fitness studio might be a good place to start. Whether you’re into aerobics, Pilates, even belly dancing - there are plenty of options for beginners and experts. But remember to warm your body up first. We recommend this warm-up video from the NHS. 

Staying connected with others can also help with both your physical and mental health, so why not get moving with your family or friends? Although this can only happen virtually for now, the online workouts we’ve suggested could take place over Zoom, Facetime or through other apps.   

Keeping active on the move 

It’s surprising how a slight change of routine can increase your physical activity levels and help you feel better when you’re living with diabetes. This could include: 

When you have diabetes, walking can be a good form of exercise when you are on the move
  • getting off the bus or tube one stop earlier, or parking further away from your destination 
  • taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator 
  • using your food shopping as weights  
  • cycling 
  • walking

Keeping active at work 

Keeping active at work when you have diabetes is important, especially if you have to sit down in front of a computer for a long time. Although many of us are working from home right now, you may still want to try: 

  • walking meetings, using hands free equipment to chat whilst moving around in a safe environment   
  • standing when you’re on the phone or trying to use a standing desk 
  • chair-exercises like sitting and lifting your arms up 
  • putting set break times in your work diary every day and using the time to be more active - e.g. going for a walk and getting some fresh air 
  • stretching for 5 minutes after every meeting; this can also be a great way to relieve stress. 

If you are still going into work, you might find our tips about how to include more activity into your commute useful too.  

Keeping active as a hobby 

You could try starting up a new physical activity hobby. It’ll help you manage your diabetes and feel good. Some ideas include:  

When you have diabetes, swimming can be a good form of exercise or physically activite hobby to take up
  • starting yoga or Pilates YouTube workouts 
  • swimming
  • signing up to a new class, such as dance or tai-chi 
  • skipping 
  • bowls. 

You may also want to take a look at our fundraising events - there’s a big range to choose from throughout the year, involving walking, swimming, cycling and lots more. We organise these to help you get active and raise money, so we can keep working towards a world where diabetes can do no harm. 

Exercising if you have diabetes complications 

You can still exercise if you have diabetes complications, like problems with your eyes or heart, but you’ll need to think a bit more about the activity you choose. For example, you should avoid high-intensity activity and heavy lifting. But there are other gentler, low-impact exercises you can try - such as swimming, cycling or walking.    

Remember that a little bit of activity has so many benefits, so do as much as you can and reward yourself for any small changes you make. 

Foot problems 

If you have problems with your feet, such as neuropathy or foot ulcers, you might need to avoid certain types of weight-bearing activity like jogging. Chair-based exercises might be better for you, like raising your legs one after the other or lifting cans of food while you’re sitting down. 

It's also important to use suitable footwear when exercising, and make sure to regularly check your feet for any changes in the way they look or feel. 

Speak to your healthcare team 

It’s really important to take care of your body, as well as be active. So speak to your healthcare team for more advice about what’s best for you before starting anything new. They can help you decide what’s safe and consider any complications you have. 

Exercise and blood sugar levels 

Being physically active can affect your blood sugar levels in different ways, depending on the type of activity you’re doing. To help you feel more confident about moving more, we’ve put together information and advice about managing your blood sugars before, during and after your physical activity. Learn more about exercise and blood sugar levels.  

Where to get support with exercise 

Whether you’re new to physical activity, or just looking for something different to try, here’s some more support to help you on your journey to move more.   

Use tools to set exercise goals and plan ahead 

Setting goals can help you break down what you need to do and how to do it. These can be short, medium or long-term goals, and they can give you the chance to think ahead about any barriers you might come across. Examples could include:

  • completing a weekly exercise video online  
  • going on a daily walk  
  • stretching for 10 minutes after you wake up. 

We've also created a guide to moving more (PDF, 2.9MB) to help you start this journey. There's space for you to plan your activity and track your progress, as well as lots of information to support you along the way. 

If one of your aims is to lose weight, we’ve made a weight loss planner (PDF, 534KB) for you to download. You can stick it to your fridge to help you keep track each day. 

You might also want to try our Learning Zone to learn more about how effective a little bit of physical activity can be for your diabetes. You’ll also be able to hear from other people with diabetes about what they do to get active and how it helps. 

If you’re short on time and prefer to plan while you’re on the go, try apps like the Couch to 5K and Active 10. Apps can be really motivating and give your planning some structure. 

Talk to your healthcare team  

Ask at your GP surgery about local services to help you get active. They should be able to tell you about new classes or events and give you advice on what type of activity might benefit you the most. 

Find out what’s happening in your local area 

Getting active with others can often give you that extra bit of motivation you need.

We run local diabetes support groups to bring people with diabetes together. Sharing tips and stories with like-minded people could help you learn and figure out what’s best for you. Use our postcode finder to find out if you’ve got one in your area and check out what online activities they’re running.  

This content has been created in partnership with support from national lottery funding through Sport England.

The National Lottery; Sport England


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