Diabetes - keeping active


If you have diabetes, you may think that only vigorous exercise is helpful. But this is not true. Increasing your daily activity by any amount can help improve your health. And there are a lot of ways to add more activity to your day.

Video: Diabetes

Alternative Names

Physical activity - diabetes; Exercise - diabetes


There are many benefits to being active. Staying active can:

  • Help control your blood sugar
  • Help control your weight
  • Keep your heart, lungs, and blood vessels healthy

While the focus of activity is often weight loss, you can benefit and become healthier from activity even without losing weight.

Staying Active at Home

One of the best things you can do is get up and start moving. Any activity is better than no activity.

Clean the house. Walk around when you are on the phone. Take frequent, short breaks at least every 30 minutes to get up and walk around when using the computer.

Get outside of your house and do chores, such as gardening, raking leaves, or washing the car. Play outside with your kids or grandchildren. Take the dog for a walk.

Staying Active Outside the Home

For many people with diabetes, an activity program outside the home is a great option.

  • Talk to your health care provider about your plans and discuss what activities are right for you.
  • Visit the gym or a fitness facility and have an instructor show you how to use the equipment. Pick a gym that has an atmosphere you enjoy and gives you a number of options in terms of activities and locations.
  • When the weather is cold or wet, stay active by walking around in places like a mall.
  • Make sure you are using the right shoes and equipment.
  • Start slowly. A common mistake is to try and do too much too quickly. This can result in muscle and joint injury.
  • Involve friends or family. Activity in a group or with partners is usually more fun and motivating.

Shopping, Running Errands, and Working

When you run errands:

  • Walk as much as you can.
  • If you do drive, park your car in the farthest part of the parking lot.
  • Do not use drive-up windows. Get out of your car and walk inside the restaurant or retailer.

At work:

  • Walk over to your co-workers instead of calling, texting, or sending them emails.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator -- start with 1 floor up or 2 floors down and try to increase over time.
  • Stand up and move around while making phone calls.
  • Stretch or walk around instead of taking a coffee break or snacking.
  • During lunch, walk to the bank or post office, or do other errands that allow you to move around.

At the end of your commute, get off the train or bus one stop earlier and walk the rest of the way to work or home.

If you want to find out how much activity you are getting during the day, use a wearable activity monitor or a step counting device, called a pedometer. Once you know how many steps you average in a day, try to take more steps each day. Your goal for better health should be around 10,000 steps a day, or progressively more steps than you took the day before.

Health Risks

There are some health risks to beginning new activity programs. Always check with your provider before getting started.

People with diabetes are at increased risk of having heart problems. They don't always sense the warning signs of a heart attack. Ask your doctor if you need to be screened for heart disease, particularly if you:

  • Also have high blood pressure
  • Also have high cholesterol
  • Smoke
  • Have a history of heart disease in your family

People with diabetes who are overweight or obese are at higher risk of having arthritis or other joint problems. Talk to your provider if you have had joint pain with activity in the past.

Some people who are obese may develop skin rashes when they start new exercises. These can often be prevented by choosing the right clothing. If you develop a skin infection or rash, often in skin folds, talk to your provider and make sure it is treated before you continue being active.

People with diabetes and nerve damage in their feet need to be extra careful when starting new activities. Check your feet daily for redness, blisters, or calluses that are starting to form. Always wear socks. Check your socks and shoes for rough spots, which can cause blisters or ulcers. Make sure your toenails are trimmed. Let your provider know right away if you have warmth, swelling, or redness across the top of your foot or your ankle.

Some types of vigorous exercise (mostly heavier weight lifting) can damage your eyes if you already have diabetic eye disease. Be sure to get an eye exam before starting a new exercise program.


American Diabetes Association. 5. Facilitating behavior change and well-being to improve health outcomes: standards of medical care in diabetes-2020. Diabetes Care. 2020;43(Suppl 1):S48-S65. PMID: 31862748 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31862748/.

Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, et al. American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on practice guidelines. 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on practice guidelines. Circulation. 2014;129(25 Suppl 2):S76-S99. PMID: 24222015 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24222015/.

Lundgren JA, Kirk SE. The athlete with diabetes. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR, eds. DeLee & Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 18.

Review Date: 
Reviewed By: 
Brent Wisse, MD, board certified in Metabolism/Endocrinology, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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