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Combating Type 2 Diabetes with Exercise

Discover the power of exercise in managing and potentially reversing type 2 diabetes. Learn about the benefits, create an effective routine, and find the motivation to make exercise a regular part of your life.

Person exercising outdoors, managing type 2 diabetes through a healthy and active lifestyle

Working out isn’t just about looking better and improving athletic performance. Above all else, it’s about being healthy and maximizing quality of life over both the short and long term. It’s also about reducing our risk for one major health crisis in particular: type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a growing problem worldwide, with more than 463 million adults affected by the condition in 2019. This chronic disease can have serious health consequences, including nerve damage, blindness, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. However, it's possible to manage and even reverse type 2 diabetes through lifestyle changes, including regular exercise. In this article, we'll explore the role of exercise in combating type 2 diabetes and provide tips for creating an effective exercise routine.

Understanding Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which the body is unable to properly use insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. This can lead to high blood sugar levels, which can damage organs and cause a variety of health problems. While genetics and other factors can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes, lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise are also important factors.

The Benefits of Exercise for Type 2 Diabetes

Regular exercise can help manage and even reverse type 2 diabetes in several ways. Exercise can:

1. Lower Blood Sugar Levels

Physical activity helps muscles use more glucose, which can lower blood sugar levels. This effect can last for several hours after exercise, making regular exercise an effective way to manage blood sugar levels.

2. Improve Insulin Sensitivity

Exercise can improve the body's ability to use insulin, making it easier to regulate blood sugar levels. This effect can be particularly helpful for people with type 2 diabetes, who often have reduced insulin sensitivity.

3. Aid in Weight Loss

Excess weight is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and losing weight can help manage the condition. Exercise can help burn calories and build muscle, making it an effective way to lose weight and manage diabetes.

4. Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a common complication of type 2 diabetes, and regular exercise can help lower blood pressure levels.

5. Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation is a contributing factor to many health problems, including type 2 diabetes. Regular exercise can help reduce inflammation, improving overall health and reducing the risk of complications from diabetes.

Creating an Exercise Routine for Type 2 Diabetes

Before starting an exercise routine, it's important to talk to your healthcare provider to ensure it's safe for you. Once you have the green light, aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, spread out over at least three days. This can include activities such as:






Recreational sports

Aerobics classes

In addition to aerobic exercise, it's also important to incorporate strength training exercises at least two days per week. This can include using weights or resistance bands, doing bodyweight exercises, or using weight machines at the gym. 

Why is resistance training important for combating type 2 diabetes? Because one place blood sugar is stored is in the skeletal muscle. The more muscle tissue you have, the more storage space you have for sugar – and the less sugar there will be in your blood causing potential health problems.

It's also important to stay hydrated during exercise and to monitor blood sugar levels before, during, and after exercise, particularly if you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes. If your blood sugar levels are low before exercise, it may be necessary to eat a small snack to prevent hypoglycemia.

Tips for Sticking with an Exercise Routine

Creating a new exercise routine can be challenging, but there are several strategies that can help make it easier:

Set Realistic Goals

Start with small, achievable goals and build from there. This can help you stay motivated and avoid burnout. Break larger goals (like losing 50 pounds) down into smaller, more achievable goals (like losing that first 5 pounds). Remember, achieving several short term goals will lead to ultimately succeeding with a long term goal, so don’t look too far ahead.

Make it Enjoyable

Choose activities that you enjoy, such as dancing or swimming, to make exercise more enjoyable. If you can’t think of any forms of exercise you enjoy, try new ones to see what you like. Try the exercise bike, or a new group fitness class, or yoga, or water aerobics. Keep trying new things until you find something that sticks. 

Find a Support System

Exercise with a friend or family member, or join a group exercise class to help stay motivated. Who you surround yourself with makes a big difference when trying to make a lifestyle change. Team up with people who have similar goals as you, as well as people who are both supportive and positive. Spend the bulk of your time around individuals who encourage your new, healthier lifestyle and who are genuinely happy to see you succeed. Avoid those who try to pull you into an unhealthy lifesytle with guilt trips. 

Track Your Progress

Keeping track of your progress, such as the number of minutes you've exercised or how much weight you've lifted, can help you see the progress you're making and stay motivated. Numbers can be very powerful and motivating. When you can see the number of workouts you’ve completed increase – from 1 to 10 to 50 to 100… and beyond – it will motivate you to keep going.

Be Flexible

Life happens, and it's important to be flexible with your exercise routine. If you miss a workout, don't beat yourself up – just get back on track as soon as possible. No one has ever followed an exercise routine perfectly; there are always bumps in the road. Don’t think of those bumps as getting off course – those bumps are part of the course! 

Regular exercise is a powerful tool for managing and even reversing type 2 diabetes. By improving insulin sensitivity, lowering blood sugar levels, aiding in weight loss, reducing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure, exercise can help reduce the risk of complications from diabetes and improve overall health. 

By creating an exercise routine that includes both aerobic exercise and strength training, and by staying motivated and flexible, it's possible to make exercise a regular and enjoyable part of life.


Is exercise alone enough to manage type 2 diabetes?

While exercise can be a powerful tool for managing type 2 diabetes, it's important to also make dietary changes and work with your healthcare provider to manage the condition. Different foods impact blood sugar levels differently from person to person, but generally speaking, focus on eating foods with no added sugar that are minimally processed (ie, fresh produce). Protein and healthy fats are also important for overall health, so choose lean meats and fish. 

How long does it take to see results from exercise in managing type 2 diabetes?

Results can vary depending on the individual, but improvements in blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity can be seen within just a few weeks of starting a regular exercise routine. Aside from improving blood sugar levels and A1C stats, exercise (both aerobic and resistance training) will give you more energy, make you feel better overall, and even improve your sleep quality at night. 

Can high-intensity exercise be dangerous for people with type 2 diabetes?

High-intensity exercise can be safe for people with type 2 diabetes, but it's important to work with a healthcare provider to determine what type and intensity of exercise is safe for you. Remember that intensity is relative. If you’re just getting started with this type of exercise, high intensity could mean intervals of fast walking (as opposed to sprinting). Intervals of fast walking alternated with regular pace walking (60 seconds each) can make for a great workout; if you’re on a treadmill, this could mean going back and forth between 2 MPH and 3 MPH. Over time, you can increase your speed gradually.

Can strength training exercises be done at home?

Yes, there are many bodyweight exercises that can be done at home, such as push-ups, squats, and lunges, as well as exercises that use resistance bands or small weights. When it comes to resistance training, sticking to the basics always works.

Can exercise reverse type 2 diabetes?

While exercise can help manage type 2 diabetes and even lead to remission in some cases, it's important to work with a healthcare provider to determine the best course of treatment for your individual needs.

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