Exercise and diabetes: what you need to know

Exercise is a key component of the treatment for your type 2 diabetes diagnosis. Here, we break down why exercise is so important for limiting risks, as well as some guidelines for exercising with type 2 diabetes.
Simon Lovick
min read
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Quick summary

  • Exercise is key to physical and mental wellbeing
  • In terms of your type 2 diabetes diagnosis, exercising can have huge benefits in terms of lowering your blood sugar level and helping you lose weight
  • Find out how to keep exercise fun, as well as safe

Exercise forms the backbone of any healthy lifestyle. From professional athletes to your casual park runner, many people will extol the virtues of regular exercise and the impact it can have on both your physical and mental health. 

For one, regular exercise is a great way to improve your fitness and overall stamina. It’s often recommended that 30 minutes a day, or 2.5 hours a week is a great way to increase your fitness. Exercise is also a good way to support and maintain weight loss (more on that later). 

The benefits of exercise aren’t just physical either: it can have a huge impact on your mental health. Regular short bouts of exercise are proven to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can even act as a natural antidepressant, reducing your risk of depression in the future.[1] 

If you’ve received a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, then exercise can help, too. Exercise is a key component of your management plan and should sit alongside any medical treatment or diet plan. 

Here, we break down the link between exercise and diabetes, and why the science points to it having a strong positive impact; we’ll also help you put in place a routine of good exercise for type 2 diabetes, identifying some quick wins as well as unsuitable exercises for type 2 diabetes. 

Exercise and type 2 diabetes: what’s the link?

Type 2 diabetes comes about for a variety of reasons. It's caused by a combination of environmental and genetic risk factors, each of which can increase your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Exercise, and how regularly you do it, is one significant environmental factor that can impact your risk of type 2 diabetes. Being physically inactive is one common reason for type 2 diabetes developing. Similarly, having a sedentary lifestyle (spending a lot of your time sitting) can also increase your risk. 

There is actually a strong scientific link between exercise and type 2 diabetes. For one, exercise can increase your insulin sensitivity. What does this mean exactly? Well, when your body can’t use insulin properly, it struggles to absorb glucose for energy. The result is low insulin sensitivity. 

Good news though—exercise can solve this! When you exercise, your muscles need fuel to work hard. To tap up that essential energy, you release a protein called GLUT4, which allows glucose to be taken from the blood and enter the muscles, and helps balance your blood sugar levels. This doesn’t stop when you stop exercising: it actually stays in the body for up to 48 hours afterwards, and can even have a long term impact on your body’s insulin sensitivity.[2,3]

Exercise also increases your blood flow around the body—by up to 20 times! Greater blood flow carries more glucose with it, meaning there are more opportunities for it to be taken up by the muscles.[4]

Exercise helps lower blood sugar levels for up to 48 hours after the activity and has a long-term impact on your body’s insulin sensitivity

Colberg et al., Diabetes Care, Richter et al, Physiol Rev

Given that being overweight or obese is another strong risk factor for type 2 diabetes, exercise can have a huge impact in this regard. This is all related to your metabolism, or specifically, your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Simple weight loss will reduce your BMR, meaning it’s harder to burn calories (hence why it can be easy to yo-yo in weight). Exercise, however, builds muscle, which actually increases your BMR: this essentially means you can burn calories more easily without extra effort. Yes, you read that correctly!

Exercise will also help burn fat inside the body—particularly on the liver and pancreas. It’s this internal fat that can prevent the body’s ability to naturally regulate blood sugar levels, so shredding that fat can have a huge benefit. 

Exercise also has an impact on your hunger levels. Contrary to popular belief, exercise doesn’t make you more hungry. Studies into ghrelin, aka the hungry hormone, showed that exercise has no impact on your ghrelin levels, meaning you’ll burn more calories without getting hungrier.[5] Some studies suggest it may even make you less hungry: a workout can lower ghrelin levels, as well as release peptide YY, a hormone which makes you feel full.[6]

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Type 2 diabetes exercise guidelines

While exercise has overwhelming benefits, you should approach it with a certain degree of caution. Exercise lowers your blood sugar levels, as does medication like insulin, sulfonylureas, and meglitinides, so you should be careful to avoid hypoglycaemia. There are also certain types of exercise that can lead to glucose spikes. This is because adrenaline (that you produce during certain workouts) increases the level of glucose in your body. It’s only temporary but still worth being aware of.  

There are a number of things you can do to exercise safely. 

First of all, stay hydrated: this is generally valuable advice for exercise, but particularly for those with a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, as it can help keep your blood sugar low. It’s also worth keeping a snack handy, just in case you start feeling light-headed or dizzy (a symptom of hypoglycaemia). If you monitor your blood sugar levels, keep good track of them before, during, and after you exercise. This will help you see how your body responds to movement. 

If you do start to feel light-headed, or if you have a rapid or irregular heartbeat, then you should stop exercising. 

How to implement good exercise habits

There are several easy ways to implement a good exercise routine that can help lower your blood sugar levels and combat your type 2 diabetes diagnosis. 

First of all, how much exercise should you do? The recommended amount is 2.5 hours of exercise a week. How you decide to split this is really up to you: it might be 30 minutes, five times a week, or perhaps you’ll choose to do a couple of hour-long workouts, topped up with short bursts of activity here and there. 

2.5 hours of weekly exercise is recommended but how you divide the time is up to you

The key to a good exercise routine is creativity. Doing the same workout every day will start to feel like a chore. Instead, try to mix things up—maybe you’ll play sports one day, followed by a gym workout or a swim the next day. Choose activities that will give you a full-body workout (that’s why sports are a particularly good choice). Try and get other people involved: this will make it more fun, and you can even motivate each other. 

Also consider how you can incorporate more activity into your everyday life. Examples of this include:

  • Get off the bus a few stops early and walk the last bit
  • Take the stairs instead of a lift
  • While you’re watching TV, do mini workouts in the ad breaks
  • Clean the house—you’ll burn a surprising number of calories!
  • Dance!

Fundamentally, try and avoid viewing exercise as something you have to do, and think of it as something you enjoy. Remember, there’s no right exercise: the best form of exercise is the one you enjoy the most. It should be something fun, an activity you can do with friends or family, and which will ultimately have a huge impact on your type 2 diabetes diagnosis.


[1] Exercise for stress and anxiety. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Retrieved March 18 2022. Accessible here

[2] Colberg S.R., Sigal R.J., Fernhall B., et al. (2010). Exercise and type 2 diabetes: the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association: joint position statement. Diabetes Care 33(12):e147-e167. Accessible here.

[3] Richter, E.A., Hargreaves, M. (2013). Exercise, GLUT4, and skeletal muscle glucose uptake. Physiol Rev 93(3):993-1017. Accessible here.

[4] Rose A.J., Richter E.A. (2005). Skeletal muscle glucose uptake during exercise: how is it regulated? Physiology (Bethesda) 20:260-270. Accessible here.

[5] King J.A., Wasse L.K., Broom D.R., Stensel D.J. (2010). Influence of brisk walking on appetite, energy intake, and plasma acylated ghrelin. Med Sci Sports Exerc 42(3):485-92. Accessible here.

[6] Exercise Suppresses Appetite By Affecting Appetite Hormones. American Physiological Society, ScienceDaily. Retrieved 31 March 2022. Accessible here.

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