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Keeping Diabetes in Control with Exercise

Exercise is extremely important for persons with diabetes. By staying fit, persons with diabetes can lower their blood sugar and blood pressure, as well as improve their body’s use of insulin.

In addition, exercise helps them to lose weight, build strength and feel more energetic. With regular exercise and a healthy diet, some persons with diabetes can cut down or even eliminate certain medications.

“Any type of physical activity can be beneficial for people with diabetes,” said Jennifer Holst, MD, an endocrinologist at West Penn Allegheny Health System. “Walking for 30 minutes, five days a week (150 minutes a week) is enough physical activity to improve your blood glucose and decrease your risk of heart disease.  I suggest that people pick an activity that they enjoy doing, like dancing, or doing yard work – and try to do that activity for about 150 minutes a week.”

Before starting to work out, you should ask your doctor if it’s ok to exercise. Your doctor will also instruct you how to monitor blood sugar changes that take place during exercise.

When planning an exercise program, you can choose from a variety of aerobic and strength training activities. Aerobic exercise helps to keep the heart and lungs healthy. Whether you run, walk, bike, swim or dance, try to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day. If you don’t have time to complete a 30-minute aerobic workout in one session, try to exercise for several sessions throughout the day. Strength training helps build strong muscles and bones. You can work out with free weights, exercise machines or exercise bands. Try to complete two to three strength training sessions each week.

Patients who have diabetes should also be aware of these special considerations when exercising:

  • Blood sugar problems. Persons with diabetes should be alert for symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), such as trembling, rapid heartbeat, palpitations, headache and increased sweating. If you experience these symptoms, stop exercising and immediately check your blood glucose. Eat foods or consume drinks with sugar. Rest for 10 to 15 minutes, then check your blood glucose again. Don’t exercise if your blood glucose level is below 100 mg/dl. It is also advisable to check your blood sugar levels before and after exercise.
  • Foot care. Persons with diabetes should pay special attention to proper foot care. Left untreated, blisters, ingrown toenails, corns and calluses can cause dangerous infections and foot ulcers. In extreme cases, this can necessitate amputation of a lower limb. Wear properly fitting shoes and keep your feet clean. If you experience any problems with your feet, see your doctor as soon as possible.
  • Wear a medical ID tag. If you have a medical emergency, first responders can quickly begin proper treatment if you are wearing a diabetes bracelet or diabetic jewelry.


With some simple precautions, many persons with diabetes can exercise safely and improve their health. If you have any special questions about exercising with diabetes, check with your physician.

To be referred to an endocrinologist at West Penn Allegheny Health System, call 412.DOCTORS (412.362.8677).


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