Role of Exercise in Type 2 Diabetes

summer hikeLifestyle changes play an important role in managing type 2 diabetes. Activity can immediately decrease blood glucose and improve long term control. It can also reduce the risk of diabetes complications like heart disease.

How it Works

Glucose is a type of sugar that is used for energy. It is present in the blood and stored in the muscle and liver. Insulin helps most of the glucose move from the blood into cells. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin. Glucose then has trouble getting to the cells. The body doesn’t get enough energy and glucose builds up in the blood.

Busy muscles have a greater need for glucose as fuel. The muscle cells will let glucose enter with far less insulin. This leads to a drop in blood glucose levels. The drop will happen during exercise and for a few hours.

Over time, regular exercise can make the body less insulin resistant. The benefit happens during activity or rest. It may lead to a decrease in the need for medicine to control diabetes. In addition, regular exercise can help you reach a healthy weight. Weight loss may decrease or eliminate type 2 diabetes.

Exercise Recommendations

Talk to a doctor before starting an exercise program. You and your doctor can work together to choose an exercise program that is right for you.

For greatest benefits, you will need to do both aerobic exercises and strength training. Aerobic exercises include things like walking, bicycling, and swimming. Strength training exercises and classes use things like weight machines, free weights, and resistance bands. Adults should aim for:

  • At least 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic exercise
  • 2 to 3 days of strength training per week
  • Try not to go more than 2 days without some type of activity

Look for ways to add activity to your day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, take a short walk during the day, or walk instead of taking the car. Even 10 minutes of activity can provide some immediate benefits.

Safety Steps

Certain diabetes medicine can lead to a decrease in blood glucose. It can cause a very low level of glucose called hypoglycemia. Talk to your doctor to understand if this may be a problem for you. Be aware of signs of low blood glucose. This includes dizziness, shaking, or confusion. If you have these symptoms, stop exercising. Take steps to manage hypoglycemia. Let your doctor know about any episodes. Medicine may need to be adjusted.

Diabetes can also affect the nerves and blood flow to the feet. Check your feet often for wounds.

This is only one piece of an overall management plan. You will also need to control your blood glucose levels with good nutrition.


American Diabetes Association

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Health Canada

Public Health Agency of Canada


Physical activity for type 2 diabetes. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Accessed February 20, 2018.

Physical activity is important. American Diabetes Association website. Available at: Updated December 27, 2016. Accessed February 20, 2018.

What we recommend. American Diabetes Association website. Available at: Updated May 19, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2018.

Last reviewed December 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 3/14/2019