If you have diabetes, you know that exercise is an essential part of maintaining healthy blood sugar levels (and can also improve sleep, mood, stress levels, and lower your risk for heart disease, a serious complication of diabetes). And any way you choose to move more throughout the day is step in the right direction toward better blood glucose. That said, experts say that having a well-rounded routine with a mix of cardio, resistance training, and stretching is ideal to maximize your blood-sugar stabilizing potential. (Before starting a fitness routine, check with your doctor and take note of these tips to exercise safely and avoid low blood sugar.)
Here’s why cardio, strength training, and stretching exercises work better together for people with diabetes, and how they affect your blood sugar levels differently.
Cardio is any exercise that gets the large muscles of the body moving rhythmically for five minutes or more, says Joan Pagano, an exercise physiologist in New York City. These muscles need glucose (blood sugar) in order to function, so they take that glucose from the bloodstream, she says.
Cardio activities increase your breathing and heart rate, and help your muscles use oxygen more efficiently. “Walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, stair climbing, hiking—all of those things are aerobic activities, and that helps improve the ability of the heart and lungs to function,” she says.
Resistance training, or strength training, is a form of exercise that uses weights, bands, or your body weight to put resistance on your muscles, making them work harder than they’re used to, which over time makes them stronger. “When you gain muscle, you can burn calories faster, you can lose weight faster, [and] you can metabolize your sugars better,” says Sandra Arévalo, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators.
Resistance training requires you to use your skeletal muscles. By using those muscles, you incorporate blood sugar into them; this lowers your insulin levels and also helps improves your metabolism, says Minisha Sood, MD, an endocrinologist in New York City. “Many times when you do aerobic exercise you may burn calories in that setting, but the calorie burn doesn’t continue after you leave that activity. When you resistance train you increase your lean muscle mass, which improves your insulin levels overtime, and that benefit lasts even beyond your time with the weights,” says Dr. Sood.
(Ever wonder whether cardio or strength training is better for shedding pounds? We have the answer: Here’s the best type of exercise for weight loss.)
Stretching & Flexibility
Flexibility exercises stretch your muscles, help your body stay limber, and keep your joints healthy. They’re important to do in general from the wear and tear of our day to day, but it’s especially important after you do a cardio or strength training workout, says Pagano. Post-workout is a good time to stretch because your body is warm from the movement, so it will help to lengthen the muscle tissue that you just worked. (Here are a few trainer-recommended stretches to try.) Stretching exercises are often especially good at relieving stress, and managing stress levels is also good for diabetes control.
In general, experts recommend you aim for about 150 minutes of exercise per week (30 minutes a day, five days a week), but don’t be intimidated by that number. It’s OK to start small and work your way up. Talk to your doctor to find a fitness plan that works with your lifestyle and diabetes management routine.
In the meantime, check out these low-effort ways to burn 200 calories!