Getting active whilst living with diabetes

Published 6 April, 2021

Why is it important to increase physical activity?

We know that increasing our physical activity is good for both our mental and physical health. And being active is an important part of managing your diabetes. It can help you to:

Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight
Reduce your blood sugar levels as working your muscles uses up more energy
Help the body to become more sensitive to the insulin you are producing, which could result in you needing less medication

What is the right amount of physical activity?

It is recommended to aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week.

Think F.I.T:

Frequency – aim to do something active on 5 days of the week.

Intensity – aim for the activity to be of moderate intensity. You will feel warmer and may need to take a layer of clothing off.  Or try to think how ‘out of breath’ you are on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being VERY out of breath. You should feel 5-6 out of 10. Working at moderate intensity means you might be able to talk, but you wouldn’t be able to sing.

Time – Ideally 30 minutes of activity but it’s still beneficial if this is broken down into 10 minute bouts during the day.

Remember – any increase in activity is beneficial. If these targets seem unrealistic for you, start small as any changes will still help

Will my blood sugars go too low?

Activity may affect your blood sugar levels, possibly causing them to drop too low (less than 4mmol/l). It’s important that you take your blood glucose monitor with you when exercising and test before, during (if you feel unwell) and after. And you should remember to carry some hypo treatment.

The actual effect on your blood sugar levels will depend on the type of medication you are taking for your diabetes. Taking insulin or medications from a family of drugs called sulphonylureas (usually ending in “ide”, such as “gliclazide”) increases the risk of low blood sugar during exercise. If you are on medications like this and experiencing low blood sugars when doing activity, you may want to speak to your diabetes healthcare professional about the need to reduce your dose.

What other precautions should I take?

Taking good care of your feet is essential. Inspect your feet before and after any activity and make sure that you dry your feet properly afterwards. You should also ensure your footwear is well-fitting, comfortable, and appropriate for the activity you choose.

Activity can temporarily cause your blood pressure to rise. But over the long-term, it actually works to reduce your blood pressure. For most people starting activity is no problem, but if your blood pressure is very high you should speak to your diabetes healthcare professional first.

Top tips to help you increase your physical activity

1. Set yourself a goal

Be clear about why you are starting a new activity regime and what goal you want to reach. Perhaps you want to complete a sponsored walk, or maybe you just want to work towards lowering your glucose levels.

2. Start slowly

If you haven’t done any extra activity for a while make sure you build up slowly. Start with just 5-10 minutes, or if you are going to a place with exercise professionals ask them to suggest a programme for you.

3. Do something you enjoy

Choose an activity you enjoy. For you that may be dancing, walking, going to the gym, swimming, the choices are endless.4

4. Keep a non-activity diary

The main barrier to not being active is often a lack of time. Keep a diary for your week recording all the times you are not being active (e.g. not working, eating or sleeping). See if you can change a non-active moment into an active one!

5. Get support

Having the will-power to get started and keep yourself motivated can be another barrier to activity. Recording your achievements can be really motivating. Mobile ‘apps’ can be useful if you like to do things alone. Or if you prefer company, think about either joining a group or encouraging a friend or family member to join you.

Here are some simple ideas to help you get started:

  • Always take the stairs
  • Cycle or walk where possible – leave the car at home
  • Get off the bus one stop early, and walk the rest of the way
  • Go for a walk on your lunch break
  • Park the car at the furthest corner of the car park
  • Keep some comfortable walking shoes under your desk or in your car, so you always have them to hand if the opportunity for a walk comes up
  • Buddy up with someone of a similar level of fitness, and support each other to fit more activity into your day
  • When watching TV, see how many times you can go up and down the stairs in the ad breaks
  • Walk on the spot in the kitchen while waiting for the kettle to boil
  • Put on your favourite music and dance!

Further reading/Useful resources/References

Find out if your local authority/council runs any start-up activity programmes. Many offer them at a reduced cost.

Diabetes UK

Getting active and staying active and treating hypoglycaemia