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Diabetes and exercise

Being physically active is good for diabetes. This includes traditional exercise like going swimming or playing football. But also small things like moving more when you’re travelling to work or using the stairs instead of the lift. It all makes a difference.

We know that the way your diabetes affects you is unpredictable. You don’t always know how you'll feel or what you can and can’t do. Which makes the small victories important, even when it comes to being active. Because it doesn’t matter whether it’s something small and new, or just that little bit more of something you already do. 

Here we’ll take you through the benefits of being active for diabetes and show you what type of activities are good to try. We’ll help you start small and build up, in a way that suits you. And if you’re already doing exercise, we’ve got more detailed information to help you manage Type 1 diabetes or Type 2 diabetes.

“You don’t have to do traditional exercise, simply moving more is good for your health and your diabetes. That might be walking to the shops, using the stairs or even standing more. It’s amazing how quickly small changes can add up and lead to a physically active life.”
– Neil Gibson, Physical Activity Insight Advisor at Diabetes UK
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You’re not alone in this, we can help you get active. That’s why we’ve teamed up with Sport England and other charity partners to help promote moving more across the UK in new campaign We Are Undefeatable.

Benefits of exercising for diabetes

Some people worry that being physically active will be too tiring or make their diabetes harder to manage. 

And if you’re someone who gets hypos, you’re probably worried about getting more. But activity doesn’t always make your blood sugar levels go down – it can make them go up too. We’ve made a guide to blood sugar levels and exercise to help you.

That’s a lot of worries and they’re all understandable. But we’re here to bust these myths and make sure you know all the important benefits of exercising when you have diabetes.

Benefits of being active with diabetes include:

  • helps the body use insulin better
  • helps you look after your blood pressure, because high blood pressure means you’re more at risk of diabetes complications
  • helps to improve cholesterol (blood fats) to help protect against problems like heart disease 
  • helps you lose weight if you need to, and keep the weight off after you’ve lost it – there are so many more benefits to losing extra weight 
  • gives you energy and helps you sleep
  • helps your joints and flexibility
  • benefits 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.  
  • and for people with Type 2 diabetes, being active helps improve your HbA1c.

Being active is even more beneficial if you do things like make healthier food choices, don’t smoke and get enough sleep.

“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, Senior Clinical Advisor at Diabetes UK

 

Best type of exercise for diabetes

There isn’t one type of activity that’s best for everyone with diabetes. It’s about finding what works for you and depends on lots of things, like what you enjoy, where you are and how much time you have. Think about how activity can fit in with your life, not the other way around. And work towards adding in some more traditional exercise too. 

It’s best to do a mixture of different types of activity, because different types have different benefits. And doing the same thing can get boring after a while. 

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. And with diabetes, keeping your heart healthy and fit is even more important because you’re more at risk of heart disease and other complications

Whereas doing something like digging in the garden helps with strength and can help the body use insulin better.

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“I love music and I started dancing at home. By changing my diet and how active I was, I stabilised my HbA1c. There was a lot to learn but talk to people, talk to your GP. Diabetes doesn't have to control you, you can control diabetes."
Zahoor decided to make changes to his lifestyle

Get active at home

When you have diabetes, there are loads of things you can do at home to get active.

  • Gardening
  • Housework
  • Carrying shopping bags
  • Stand during a TV ad break

Get active when travelling

When you’re out and about, it’s surprising how a slight change of routine will increase how active you are and help you feel better when you’re living with diabetes.

  • Getting off the bus one stop earlier
  • Cycling
  • Walking

Get 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.

  • Walking up stairs 
  • Walking meetings
  • Standing when you’re on the phone
  • Chair-exercises like sitting and lifting your arms up

Get active as a hobby

Start up an active hobby – it’ll help you manage your diabetes and feel good.

  • Yoga or pilates YouTube video
  • Swimming or dance class
  • Throwing or kicking a ball around in the park
  • Walking catch-ups with friends

Why not take a look at our fundraising events – there’s a big range to choose from, involving walking, swimming, cycling and lots more. We organise these to help you get active and to raise more money so we can keep working towards a world where diabetes can do no harm.

If you’re worried about starting any of these types of activities, talk to your GP. They will be able to give you advice on how you can adjust things to suit you.

Exercise if you have diabetes complications

If you have diabetes complications, like problems with your eyes and feet, you’ll need to think a bit more about the activity you choose. For example, if you have 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 baked bean cans while you’re sitting down.

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.

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

How does exercise affect blood sugars?

Being physically active can affect blood sugar levels in different ways, depending on the type of activity you’re doing.

We know a lot of people don’t want to exercise because it can lower their blood sugars. You might be constantly worried about hypos, and that’s understandable. But did you know that not all types of exercise make your blood sugars go down? Some make them go up too.

Understanding more about what happens before, during and after you’re active could help ease some of this worry and also manage how your levels fluctuate. If you check your blood sugars yourself, whether that’s using some diabetes technology or test strips, try doing this more often around the time you’re getting active. Trial and error can really help you spot patterns, but remember to stay safe – check out our tips on managing blood sugars.

But it’s not an exact science. Some days you’ll do exactly the same type of activity and eat the same foods, but your blood sugar levels may act differently to what you’d expect. This can be really frustrating, but it’s completely normal. Anything from hormones to the weather can affect your diabetes.

Managing blood sugars when being active

There’s no single way to manage your blood sugars, because everyone manages their diabetes differently. We’ve put together some tips to help, but talk to your diabetes healthcare team for more advice. 

Here are some things that might help:

  • If you normally check blood sugars, keep a record of what happens when you’re being active and show this to your diabetes nurse or doctor. 
  • If you’re at risk of hypos, keep hypo treatments handy. And a snack with some carbs in.
  • Wear diabetes ID so people around you can help if they need to.
  • If you use insulin to treat your diabetes, you might need to make changes to the dose you give around exercise.

Where to get support with exercise

Now you know all the facts about diabetes and exercise, here's how to get started.

Talk to your healthcare team 

Ask at your GP surgery about local services to help you get active. They should be able to point you in the right direction, 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. Whether that's friends and family, or a local walking group. 

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 activities they run. Some hold badminton games and do walking days.

And why not sign up to one of our fundraising events like the London Bridges walk or the One Million Step Challenge. You’ll be part of our team and we’ll support you every step of the way. Signing up to a challenge like this can give you a realistic goal to plan ahead for.

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. It can also give you the chance to think ahead about any barriers you might come across. If one of your aims is to lose weight, we’ve made a weight loss planner (PDF, 534KB) you can download. You can stick it to your fridge to help you keep track each day.

Use our Learning Zone to learn more about how effective a little bit of activity can be for your diabetes. And hear from other people with diabetes on what they do to get active and how they do it.

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

“It can be difficult finding what works for you, with days of frustration and tiredness. Just remember that this happens to most people, especially if you’re new to activity. Try and think about your overall goals and visualise what you want to achieve – this is proven to work for some people.”
– Neil Gibson, Physical Activity Insight Advisor at Diabetes UK

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