Regular physical activity is important for people with diabetes because it helps insulin work better at lowering blood glucose levels, helps manage weight, is good for your heart and lungs, gives you more energy and improves overall fitness.

Before you start an exercise program (if you’re a couch potato) or significantly increase your exercise, be sure your health care provider has approved your plans.

About 30 minutes before you start to exercise, always check your blood sugar. Do this every time because exercise lowers blood sugar. If it is low before you start exercising, it could drop to a dangerously low level while exercising. If you’re taking insulin or meds that cause low blood sugar, you’ll also want to test during and after exercise as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest exercise recommendations for adults with diabetes are:

  • Get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week, if you are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions. Activity should be rigorous enough to make you breathe harder and your heart pump faster. You’ll know if you are working hard enough if you can speak, but not sing, the words to a song. Examples of moderate aerobic exercise include walking fast, water aerobics, riding a bike, pushing a lawn mower or taking a dance class.
  • Work all major muscle groups at least two days a week, including the muscles of your legs, hips, back, abdomen/core area, chest, shoulders and arms. To gain fitness benefits, repeat the movement (such as lifting one weight or doing one sit-up) until you cannot do one more. Eight to 12 repetitions are considered one set. Always do one set and increase to two or three sets for even more fitness benefits. If you cannot do one set, move down to a lighter weight if you’re using hand-held weights (“free weights”). When you can do two or three sets, move up to a heavier weight. Start with two-pound weights and increase by two to three pounds as you grow stronger. You can also use resistance bands or floor exercises that use your body weight as resistance (push-ups or sit-ups are examples).
  • As an alternative to moderate activity, get 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity every week; and include the muscle-strengthening advice above. Vigorous activity means you are breathing hard and fast, breaking a sweat and your heart rate has gone up quite a bit. You won’t be able to speak more than a few words without pausing for a breath. Some examples include running, brisk jogging, swimming laps, singles tennis or playing basketball.

The two and a half hours of exercise per week can be broken into smaller chunks of time as long as they are at least 10 minutes in length. Like dieting, find an exercise plan that you can stick with.

What counts as exercise? Although all movement helps, for most adults, achieving fitness means 150 minutes of aerobic or “cardio” activity a week. When you’re comfortable with moderate-level activity, move to vigorous-intensity aerobic activities. A good transition is to mix moderate and vigorous activities. One minute of vigorous activity is about the same as two minutes of moderate activity. However, if you’re not physically able to get to a vigorous level, just increase moderate-level activity from 150 minutes a week to 300 minutes – that’s five hours a week or almost 45 minutes every day. Again, those 45 minutes can be divided into in three, 15-minute periods, such as a 15-minute walk after every meal.

Setting goals you can meet

The American Diabetes Association offers some great advice about changing your lifestyle to treat diabetes successfully.

Be willing to change. To be successful in changing your lifestyle and treating your diabetes, you must be willing to make changes and stay committed to them every day for the rest of your life. All the good advice in the world won’t help you if you’re not ready, willing and able to make changes.

Believe you can change. You must also believe in your ability to change your lifestyle.

Change must be important to you. Change must be personally important to you to actually make and maintain lifestyle changes. You must have good reasons to change. Take a moment and think about why eating healthy and getting physically fit are important to you. Be specific. If you’re prediabetic, do you want to keep from progressing to type 2 diabetes and having to take insulin shots? Maybe you want to live long enough to see your grandchildren grow up.

Write down your reasons. To be successful, pick one change you want to happen and break it into small steps. Pick a step that you are ready, willing and able to change, starting today. Leave the other parts of your lifestyle changes until later, when you have built up your confidence.

Choose one change in your eating habits and another in activity. For example, maybe you eat a bowl of ice cream every night while watching TV. Can you switch that ice cream to a healthier snack such as a piece of fruit or a small bowl of cereal? Can you take a 15-minute break from the TV and go for a walk?

For each goal, think about four things:

  1. How long will it take you to reach this goal? Keep it short.
  2. Can you realistically fit it into your regular daily life?
  3. Is it limited in scope? Be specific.
  4. How often will you do this?

These are examples of realistic goals:

  • Eating: For the next month (how long), four days each week (how often) I will eat two pieces of fruit a day — one at breakfast and one as an afternoon snack. (realistic and specific).
  • Physically active: For the next month (how long), four days each week (how often) I will take a 15-minute walk after lunch (realistic and specific).

Notice that the eating goals are not “I will eat more fruit” or “I will eat healthier.” The activity goal is not “I’ll walk more.” These goals aren’t specific like the examples above.

Set one to three goals at a time. Write them down. Put them in a place where you will see them often — on the refrigerator, your bathroom mirror, or in your purse or wallet. Practice these habits faithfully so you don’t slip back into your old habits. Don’t cheat on yourself and be patient with your progress. It will take months before your goals become your new lifestyle. If you aren’t successful meeting a goal, try again, revise your goals or choose easier ones. Once you achieve a goal, set new, specific goals that you are ready, willing and able to make, and you believe you can make.

The reward will be priceless – your life.