Strengthening Helps Diabetes

What exercise do you do for diabetes? Walking is good, but research shows strengthening is better. The stronger your muscles, the more glucose you burn, even when you are not exercising.


According to WebMD, “Strength training is one of the best things you can do for your body.” Active muscles greatly improve insulin function. Exercise of all kinds is known to improve mood and fight depression.

Another WebMD article says, “Studies from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have found that muscle-building exercise can improve balance, reduce the likelihood of falls, improve blood sugar control, and improve sleep and mental health.”

They are saying that strengthening not only improves your health; it improves your quality of life right now. It’s win-win. If you can find a strengthening program you enjoy, that adds a third win, but strength training (also called “resistance training”) intimidates many of us. We think it will hurt or be too difficult. It’s just not some people’s style, even though it’s good for us. How do we overcome those barriers and start growing stronger?

Joining a gym where they have modern training machines is a good thing. The machines are built to be very simple and safe to use. Some use weights and some use air pressure resistance. Both work.

You definitely don’t have to join a gym, though. You can use hand-held weights, resistance bands, or even your own body weight to build muscle. I suggest reading up on a new exercise before starting it or getting a trainer to help you do it safely.

You might also check with your doctor to ask if there are moves to avoid or things to watch out for. As with any exercise, strength training can lower your blood sugar, so check before and a couple of hours after exercising the first couple of times and have glucose tabs or another possible treatment for lows on hand.

Other suggestions from strength training experts:

• Set up a program that works your whole body. You can divide it up and do a part of it each day or do one longer, slower workout less often.

• Don’t work the same muscle groups two days in a row. Give your muscles a chance to recover.

• Don’t work too hard at first. Do each move 10–15 times (one set) up to three times a week. You can gradually do more, working up to three sets of 10–15 repetitions up to three times a week.

• Warm up with walking and/or stretching. When you’re done strength training, do a series of gentle stretches to relax the muscles.

What kind of exercise should you do?
The American Diabetes Association recommends the following:

• Weight machines or free weights at the gym

• Using resistance bands. They’re affordable, lightweight, and can be fun.

• Lifting light weights or objects like canned goods or water bottles at home

Calisthenics or exercises that use your own body weight to work your muscles (examples are pushups, sit ups, squats, lunges, wall-sits, and planks)

• Classes that involve strength training

• Other activities that build and keep muscle like heavy gardening

According to this article in Diabetes Self-Management, leg lifts are especially helpful for people with pain in the calves from peripheral arterial disease. They strengthen the hip muscles, which improves walking.

Here’s a video on how to do leg lifts.

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  • Samwell Baggins

    I did 30 minutes of basketball, 55 minutes of heavy-resistance and interval indoor cycling, moderate weight training and 35 minutes of swimming three-to-four times a week to get in shape. When I lost my weight (70 pounds in six months), I figured that if I was building muscle by lifting weights and cycling, my body would be forced to burn fat during heavy exercise. I think I was right.

    Weight training made me lean, and I did not bulk up. My BMI is closing in on 25, my metabolic and lipid panels now are near perfect (they certainly weren’t when I got the diagnosis), and my latest A1c results were 4.8 and 4.9. Weight training was a quarter of my success in losing weight and getting in shape.

  • Joe

    I have read a lot about the topic on how exercising can help prevent and treat diabetes. I recently read at an article that says even only 10 minutes of exercise a day can help prevent diabetes.


    I did strength training for nearly 40 years, but unfortunately a lifetime of joint, tendon, and spinal damage makes it incredibly difficult to do any kind of exercise. Even walking and standing involve moderate to severe pain. Any advice on overcoming pain to allow one to strength train, or any training that doesn’t put strain on the knees, hips, spine, or shoulders?

    • Dear RAWLCM, The only joints that aren’t hurting you seem to be your elbows and wrists. Maybe you could do some bicep and tricep work. But what are you doing for the pain? I’ve written a lot about different self-care and medicinal ways to reduce pain. Maybe you can get some ideas here.

      • RAWLCM

        Thank you for your response. I take tramadol for pain, but it doesn’t help inflammation. I had to stop ibuprophen (which helped a lot) when it caused erosion. Tramadol takes the edge off, but I still have stiffness and the pain level shoots up with exercise. Another issue is I don’t have a lot of time, so things like yoga, meditation, and warm baths are limited to days off.