Preventing Diabetes: How Physical Activity Helps

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Preventing Diabetes: How Physical Activity Helps

Cases of diabetes continue to rise in the United States. Currently, more than 34 million Americans have diabetes, and a staggering 88 million people have prediabetes. An article on the World Economic Forum website states that diabetes is a “silent epidemic that claims 4.2 million lives around the world every year — almost three times as many deaths as COVID-19.” These figures may seem discouraging, but there are proven interventions that can help to prevent diabetes. One of these is physical activity. And being physically active is easier than you think!

Insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance

Insulin plays a starring role when it comes to prediabetes and diabetes. This hormone allows the cells in the body to use glucose (blood sugar) for energy. When this happens, the amount of glucose in the blood is lowered.

Insulin sensitivity refers to how well your cells respond to insulin. The more insulin sensitive you are, the less insulin is needed to help manage blood sugar levels and keep them in a healthy range. Insulin resistance, on the other hand, is when the cells don’t respond well to insulin and can’t easily take up glucose from your blood. As a result, the pancreas is forced to make more insulin to help move glucose into cells. Over time, the pancreas is unable to keep up with the insulin demand, and blood sugar levels start to climb. This sets the stage for prediabetes or possibly type 2 diabetes.

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How physical activity helps

There are many ways to improve your insulin sensitivity, and some of the key ways are to lose weight (if you’re overweight), eat more healthfully, and manage stress. Being physically active also plays a major role in diabetes prevention.

Physical activity both increases insulin sensitivity and decreases insulin resistance: When you’re active, the amount of glucose in the blood goes down and the insulin that you have becomes more efficient at moving glucose into cells to be used for energy. Your muscles can even use glucose without insulin when you’re active.

The other benefits of physical activity relate to improving heart health. Prediabetes and diabetes put you at risk for heart problems, such as blocked arteries, heart attack, and stroke. By staying active, you can lower this risk.

And there are even more benefits to being active:

Getting started

You may not need any more convincing about why being active is so important, but you also might be thinking, “How do I get started?” A lot of people find that starting out with being active is the hardest part. The best way to approach this is to start slow and set realistic goals. Here’s how:

If you haven’t been active for a while (or for a long time), it’s best to check with your health care provider.

They may assess your heart health and consider any other health issues that you may have. You may need a stress test, for example, or blood work before you begin an activity program.

Think about activities that you like or might like.

If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t stick with it. Walking is a popular activity, but you might rather join a gym, take dance lessons, use a stationary bike, or work out with exercise videos.

If choosing an activity seems overwhelming, start small and work your way up.

Climb stairs a few times a day, walk up and down your driveway, or do yard work or housework. Gradually add a little more time and intensity each week.

Find a partner.

Activity can be more enjoyable when you have a spouse or friend joining you. Plus, a partner can hold you accountable and motivate you when you don’t feel like being active.

Schedule time for physical activity.

Pencil active time on your calendar or add it to your smartphone or computer calendar.

Link activity with your daily life.

For example, you might walk around your home or the block while you’re talking on the phone. March in place while you watch television. Devote part of your lunch or dinner break to being active, whether it’s walking outside, climbing stairs or doing desk exercises.

Get up every 30 minutes to move during the day, especially if you are sitting for most of the day.

Think of this as doing an “exercise snack.” This means moving for at least 20 seconds and building up to 3 minutes. You can march in place, do some resistance exercises, dance, or go for a short walk. Not only can these exercise “snacks” help lower your blood sugar, but they can even slash your risk of dying. Set an alarm on your phone or use your kitchen timer to remind you to move every 30 minutes.

The goal is to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. A way to do this is to do 20 to 25 minutes of activity every day. But remember to start slowly and build up.

Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter,, and

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