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What exercise is best for diabetes?

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

Exercise can help control your blood sugar levels and research has found that you can cure Type 2 diabetes if you lose some of the extra weight you carry. For anyone who suffers with Type 2 diabetes or is at risk of developing it, following a regular exercise regime should be a no-brainer! But what type of exercise works best and how much should you do?

What exercise works best for diabetes.

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In this article:

  • Read this first!

  • Aerobic exercise for diabetes

  • Strength training for diabetes

  • Flexibility exercises

  • Download a basic exercise programme for diabetes

Read this first!

It’s important to realise that exercise is only one part of the treatment regime for Type 2 diabetes. Following a healthy diet will not only help to control your blood sugar levels, but is also needed to lose some weight.

I’ve done my best to provide some easy to follow practical guidelines below, but please take this plan to your healthcare professional and discuss it with them before you start. People with diabetes all have different presentations, use various combinations of drugs and some may have other conditions (e.g. heart, foot or eye problems) which may all influence what type of exercise they can do and also with how much vigour they can do it.

You should also monitor your blood sugar levels before and after exercise to see how your body reacts to it. This can further help your healthcare professional to tailor their advice to your needs.

Aerobic exercise for diabetes

You have a few options when it comes to aerobic exercise. You can do moderate or vigorous intensity exercise or a combination of the two. You can even accumulate the recommended amount throughout the week in short bouts of exercise, but a session has to last at least 10 minutes.

The research suggest that you will gain more benefit from doing more than the recommended dose – especially if you also want to lose some weight.

Examples of activities that you may consider are walking (incline walking = vigorous exercise), using the cross trainer, cycling, rowing, running etc. You should discuss your exercise choices with a healthcare professional before you start, as you may have other issues (e.g. bad back or heart) that may mean that you should avoid some types of exercise.

1. Moderate intensity exercise

You should aim to do a total of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. This should be divided into at least 3 sessions with no more than 2 days between sessions, but can be split into several shorter ones.

Moderate intensity exercise is defined as a level where you are still able to hold an uninterrupted conversation while doing the activity. It correlates with 12–13 points on the The Borg Scale of perceived exertion or 64–76% of your maximum heart rate.

The good news is that you don’t have to get to technical with selecting the intensity! Research has shown that, when asked to exercise at a brisk pace, people tend to naturally select a pace that falls within the limits of moderate intensity exercise.

2. Vigorous intensity exercise

Alternatively, you can aim to do a total of 90 minutes vigorous intensity exercise per week. You should again aim to do at least 3 sessions per week with no more than 2 days off between sessions. Remember, you can also do several short sessions of 10 minutes each.

You know that you are doing vigorous intensity exercise if you cannot hold a conversation uninterrupted. It correlates with 14–17 points on the  The Borg Scale of perceived exertion or 77–95% of your maximum heart rate.

Strength training for diabetes

Resistance (strength) exercise can be done using weights, machines, elastic bands, bodyweight…the list goes on. The research recommends a wide variety of exercises and programmes, but it seems to agree that you should do at least 2 sessions of resistance exercise per week on non-consecutive days.

They seem to favour multi-joint exercises which trains several parts of the body at the same time. Examples of these are squats and the lat pull-down machine.

It is recommended that you use between 5 and 10 different exercises. If you have never done strength training before, you should only do one set or each exercise. Aim to use a weight that allows you to perform 15 repetitions of the exercise before you become tired and have to stop.

To gain any benefit from a strength training programme, you should increase the weights or repetitions over time. You will not make any progress if you do the same thing week in and week out.

When you find that you can easily do 17 repetitions of an exercise with a specific weight, it is time to increase the weight so that you can once again only perform 15 repetitions before you are tired. I would suggest that you start doing 2 sets of each exercise after 6 weeks and 3 sets after 12. Give yourself at least 2minutes rest between each set.

Six months after starting your strength training programme, you should be safe to start using heavier weights. I suggest that you switch to a weight that only allows you to complete 10 repetitions of an exercise before you have to rest. Remember, as soon as you find that you can do an extra 2 repetitions (e.g. 12) with that weight, it is time to increase the weight during your next session and again slowly build the repetitions up.

What level you start at and how quickly you progress will all depend on your health and level of fitness at the start of the programme.

If you have access to a gym, some of the exercises you may want to start with are (download a programme below):

  • Lat pull-down machine

  • Overhead press machine

  • Seated row machine

  • Chest press machine

  • Leg press machine

  • Knee extension machine

  • Knee flexion machine

  • Calf raises using a dumbbell

Flexibility exercises

Flexibility exercise does not hold any benefit when it comes to controlling blood sugar levels, but they are a good way to cool down after exercise and will help you in other aspects of your life. It is, for instance, much easier to inspect your feet if you can actually reach them!

Download a basic exercise programme for diabetes

Go to download page

Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ReasearchGate.


  1. Espeland M. Reduction in Weight and Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors in Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes: One-Year Results of the Look AHEAD Trial. Diabetes Care 2007 doi: 10.2337/dc07-0048

  2. Mendes R, Sousa N, Almeida A, et al. Exercise prescription for patients with type 2 diabetes—a synthesis of international recommendations: narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2016;50(22):1379-81. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-094895


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