4 Exercises Recommended for Diabetic Patients

Recommended exercises for diabetics are organized depending on what stage the development of their illness is at. Here we'll show you the best exercises for different types and complications of diabetes.
4 Exercises Recommended for Diabetic Patients

Last update: 29 September, 2020

Chronic diseases represent a challenge to therapeutic treatments, as much in planning medications as well as organizing the diet and exercise of the patient. For diabetic patients, it’s important to know what exercises are suitable, so they can get the advantages of exercise without putting themselves at risk of more harm.

In diabetes, the body alters the metabolism of sugars. This affects how the muscles can use nutrients. Taking advantage of the capacity of the body for movement to bring glucose into cells is imperative in the context of diabetes treatments.

What happens in diabetes patients over the long term?

Physical exercise is a fundamental part of diabetes treatment. Since it’s a disease of the metabolism, everything that influences your body’s metabolism will change how the disease develops, for better or for worse.

There are two types of diabetes. In type 1, there’s a complete lack of insulin, which is the hormone that brings glucose into the body’s cells. And in type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells resist the action of insulin, with a low response to the insulin receptors, even when there’s enough insulin present in the body.

As time goes on, if the diabetes is left untreated, complications start to appear in the patient in both types of diabetes.

Specific complications

Due to the chronic nature of the disease, the body’s systems and organs are progressively compromised. Here are some of the potential complications of diabetes:

  • Peripheral nerves: diabetic neuropathy is a common complication of the disease. Patients start to notice changes in nerve transmission in neurons, especially in the lower body. These changes cause loss of sensitivity or touch, above all in the fingers and toes.
  • Retina: due to a general decrease in circulation in the body, the eyeball suffers from a lack of oxygen. It starts creating new blood veins that don’t have the right thickness in their walls. These weak vein walls lead to premature breakage and hemorrhaging that accumulate in the retinal tissue. Over the medium term, the effect is a loss of vision.
  • Kidneys: the renal system is a critical point in diabetic patients. Insufficient circulation as well as the direct effect of the sugar that’s eliminated in the urine undermines the kidneys’ filtration ability. In a worst-case scenario, renal insufficiency means the body can’t retain minerals and electrolytes in the body. If it goes untreated for enough time, the patient will have to start dialysis.
  • Heart: the risk of cardiovascular problems is higher in diabetes patients. There’s a higher rate of acute heart attacks, strokes and heart failure among people with diabetes than among the rest of the population. Also, it’s common for diabetes patients to have high blood pressure.
A diabetic taking her blood sugar during exercise

Depending on the complications that diabetic patients are suffering from, different exercises or sports can be recommended. It’s very important to consider the progressive effects of the disease when planning an exercise program. Why? It’s because of the limitations. The affected organs will determine what activities the patient can carry out.

1. Sports for diabetics with peripheral neuropathy

Since the majority of symptoms of peripheral neuropathy will be in the lower limbs, it’s important to do exercises that won’t affect the feet. The patient should avoid lower limb trauma and sports that require a lot of effort from the legs.

Swimming is one recommendation. A patient can also include exercises for the upper body using gym equipment, muscle building, and machines. However, they should take care not to do too much anaerobic exercise. An exercise bike can also be a good idea, although the patient should be careful not to raise their pulse too high.

2. Exercises for diabetic patients with retinopathy

Exercise together with this aspect of diabetes, (loss of vision) can be counterproductive. Why? Physical activity can aggravate it. So, what if someone visits their eye doctor and finds out they’re developing these small fragile veins? The patient should first treat the problem and then look into exercise or sport.

The main problem is the risk of breaking these tiny veins with their paper-thin walls. That’s why the patient should avoid any sports or exercises that could cause head trauma or that include abrupt head movements. It would be preferable to opt for yoga, as a publication in the Nepal Medical College Journal recommends. Stretching exercises are another good option to keep physically active.

3. Diabetic nephropathy

The kidneys are at high risk of this complication. They have trouble with regulating hydration and filtering the blood. With that in mind, any exercise should be about not just protecting the kidneys, but also taking care of the fluid and electrolyte balance in the body.

The patient may be able to participate in sports and exercises that are predominantly aerobic. Of course, the main recommendation is to limit a raised heart rate so the patient doesn’t overdo it.

The patient should have someone supervise their hydration during exercise. This includes keeping an eye on the intake of sodium and potassium in the appropriate quantities. Sports drinks can be useful for keeping a balance.

A runner drinking a sports drink to rehydrate

4. Exercises for the heart for diabetic patients

With the goal of reducing cardiovascular risk, it’s recommended for a diabetic to do aerobic exercise for a minimum of half an hour a day. Of course, this is if the patient’s state of health permits them to do exercise.

The patient shouldn’t do high-intensity exercise, since the state of their arteries won’t allow for the risk. A general recommendation is to do exercise to a maximum of 80 percent of the maximum heart rate. However, a study published by the Brazilian Society of Cardiology states that this value shouldn’t exceed 70 percent, according to their trials with diabetic patients.

Checking the patient’s blood sugar levels before and after exercise is a good habit to get into. By doing this, the patient can see whether they need to increase their intake of carbohydrates after exercise. For people with type 1 diabetes, they’ll also be able to see if they need to take rapid action insulin thanks to blood sugar level monitoring before and after exercise.

Don’t stop exercising

Although a person has diabetes, it’s important that they don’t stop being physically active. Of course, the patient must do this within the limits of their disease. If a diabetic doesn’t do any physical exercise, the long term consequences can be catastrophic, since their condition can deteriorate.

If you’re diabetic, consult your doctor about the options that are suitable for your current situation. Depending on your current symptoms and complications, the medication you take, and your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, you can develop a suitable plan for exercising to minimize the risks. Doing exercises for diabetic patients is worth the effort!

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Malhotra, Varun, et al. The beneficial effect of yoga in diabetes. Nepal Medical College journal: NMCJ 7.2 (2005): 145-147.
  • Vancea, Denise Maria Martins, et al. El efecto de la frecuencia del ejercicio físico en el control glucémico y composición corporal de diabéticos tipo 2. Arq Bras Cardiol 92.2 (2009): 23-29.
  • Márquez Arabia, J. J., G. Ramón Suárez, and J. Márquez Tróchez. El ejercicio en el tratamiento de la diabetes mellitus tipo 2. Revista Argentina de endocrinología y metabolismo 49.4 (2012): 0-0.
  • Arrieta, Francisco, et al. Diabetes mellitus y riesgo cardiovascular: recomendaciones del Grupo de Trabajo Diabetes y Enfermedad Cardiovascular de la Sociedad Española de Diabetes (SED, 2015). Clínica e Investigación en Arteriosclerosis 27.4 (2015): 181-192.
  • Serralde, Yuriria Dolores Rufino, J. Vicente Rosas Barrientos, and Ángel Oscar Sánchez Ortiz. Efecto del ejercicio aeróbico en la calidad de vida de pacientes con diabetes tipo 2. Revista de especialidades médico-quirúrgicas 14.3 (2009): 109-116.
  • Silva, Franciele Cascaes, et al. Ejercicio físico, calidad de vida y salud de diabéticos tipo 2. Revista de psicología del deporte 26.1 (2017): 13-25.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.