Regular exercise, including both aerobic activity and resistance training, offers various and substantial health benefits for people with type 2 diabetes.

Studies have shown that exercise promotes better blood glucose control and helps reduce excess body weight — both of which are significant risk factors for diabetes. Specific types of exercise may also help with health problems that older adults with diabetes often experience, such as impaired balance and flexibility.

Other evidence suggests that not exercising may increase some of the risks associated with type 2 diabetes. These risks include cardiovascular disease, which refers to conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels, and complications related to blood vessel damage, such as eye and kidney disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that more than 34 million people in the United States have diabetes, about 90–95% of whom have type 2.

Keep reading to learn more about type 2 diabetes and physical exercise, as well as other lifestyle practices that may help people manage the condition.

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According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), exercise is critically important for managing blood glucose. Understanding how type 2 diabetes causes blood glucose to rise makes it clear how physical activity can help.

The pancreas makes the hormone insulin, which enables cells to take in glucose from the blood to use as energy. In people with type 2 diabetes, a problem called insulin resistance occurs whereby the cells become less sensitive and responsive to insulin.

As a compensatory measure, the pancreas makes more insulin to get the cells to respond. However, because the pancreas cannot keep up the necessary pace, blood glucose levels eventually rise.

Exercise helps counter the effects of type 2 diabetes in several ways. It increases insulin sensitivity, which helps the cells use any available insulin to take up glucose from the blood. Also, when muscle cells contract during exercise, they are able to take in glucose even when insulin is unavailable.

The blood glucose-lowering effects of exercise last up to about 24 hours following a workout.

Although all exercise helps counter the effects of diabetes by promoting weight loss and increasing insulin sensitivity, the specific types below provide additional advantages:

  • Aerobic exercise: Regular aerobic training lowers blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and A1C test results, which provide the average blood glucose level of the past 2–3 months. Research has linked moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise to substantially lower cardiovascular and overall death risks in people with diabetes.
  • Resistance exercise: Diabetes is a risk factor for poor muscle strength. Resistance training helps counter this effect, as it increases muscle mass and strength.
  • Other types of exercise: Older adults with diabetes tend to have limitations in balance and flexibility. Stretching exercises increase flexibility and range of motion, while balance training decreases the risk of falls and improves gait. Tai chi may improve balance, enhance quality of life, and lessen the symptoms of diabetes that affect the nervous system.

Not engaging in regular exercise deprives a person of many health benefits. Research from 2017 notes that a lack of exercise also worsens some of the risks and adverse effects of type 2 diabetes.

Low cardiovascular fitness

Not exercising results in lower levels of cardiovascular fitness, which can be a particular problem for people with diabetes because their risk of cardiovascular disease is two to four times higher than that of people without the condition. Several health issues, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity, contribute to this increased risk.

Low cardiovascular fitness strongly correlates with increased risk of death from all causes in individuals with diabetes.

Elevated blood glucose levels

Without the effects of exercise, blood glucose stays higher than it would do otherwise. Studies link elevated A1C levels to complications of diabetes that relate to blood vessel damage. High blood glucose harms blood vessels in ways that lead to an array of health issues, such as retinal damage, which can cause blindness.

Exercise helps keep blood glucose at healthy levels. Healthy blood glucose levels prevent damage to the blood vessels.

The CDC recommends getting a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. The organization also advocates engaging in activities that exercise all of the major muscle groups on at least 2 days of the week.

Examples of moderate intensity exercise include:

  • walking briskly
  • mowing the lawn
  • bicycling
  • dancing
  • doing housework
  • swimming
  • playing sports

Regardless of how much exercise a person gets, research links sedentary behavior — which involves prolonged sitting, such as working at a desk or watching TV — to a higher risk of illness and death, warns the ADA.

Studies also link sedentary behavior to poor blood sugar control in people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. These individuals can improve their blood sugar levels by engaging in light walking or exercise for 3 minutes every 30 minutes.

Lifestyle practices are very beneficial in managing type 2 diabetes. Aside from exercising, the ADA recommends the following:

Eat a well-balanced diet

A well-balanced diet includes appropriate portions of nutritious food and limits the intake of non-nutritious food. Nutritious food includes:

  • whole grains, such as oats and brown rice
  • fruits and vegetables
  • non-fried fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon
  • unsalted nuts, seeds, and legumes, such as beans
  • lean meats, such as chicken or turkey breast

Foods to limit include:

  • sugary desserts and beverages, such as cakes, candy, sodas, and fruit juices
  • salty foods
  • fatty or processed meats, such as hot dogs, sausage, and fatty cuts of pork or beef
  • partially hydrogenated and trans fats, such as shortening, coffee creamer, and some hard margarines

Manage weight

Carrying excess body weight makes it harder for people to manage blood sugar. A person can lose weight if they ingest fewer calories than they expend. Aside from managing total body weight, it is important to lose excess belly fat, as a large waist circumference puts a person at increased risk of diabetes.

Manage stress

Stress can sometimes lead to overeating and smoking, which can, in turn, have a negative effect on blood sugar. Some stress-reducing activities include:

  • taking a walk in nature
  • meeting a friend for coffee
  • reading a book
  • listening to music
  • playing a favorite sport

Quit smoking

Smoking raises blood glucose and increases the risk of complications of diabetes. It has such an effect that people who smoke have a 30–40% higher likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes than nonsmokers.

Some herbs and supplements may also help improve blood glucose control in people with diabetes, although people should not use them in place of prescribed medical treatments.

Learn about herbs and supplements for diabetes here.

The findings of studies on type 2 diabetes and physical exercise indicate that workouts help increase insulin sensitivity, which promotes healthier levels of blood glucose.

In addition, resistance training reduces the decline in muscle strength associated with diabetes.

Aside from exercise, certain other lifestyle practices are beneficial. These include eating a nutritious diet, managing body weight, quitting smoking, and taking steps to minimize stress.