Diabetes and Exercise: The Easy Way to Get Active

Doing crunches during a gym class

You’ve heard it countless times from many sources: exercise is crucial for reversing diabetes and obesity. And it’s true, but it comes in a close second place to nutrition. Fix your diet first to reap the benefits from an exercise routine. Behavioral research shows that, for those who have lost weight, maintaining a regular exercise regimen is the single largest indicator if they will keep the weight off. Finding an exercise program that meets your needs and desires should be your second focus, after becoming accustomed to the whole food meal plan of Five Hour Diabetic. Diabetes and exercise belong together for wellness.

Exercise, like nutrition, is sweating profusely with confusion about every aspect. How do you properly exercise without hurting yourself? Where should I workout – the gym or home or outside? Does cardio or weight lifting cause the most weight loss? Keep reading for answers to these questions that might surprise you.

“Why should I exercise?” is one of the best places to start this dissection of conventional wisdom (which is often more wrong than right!). The belief of conventional wisdom is that you need to exert as many calories that you take in to maintain your body weight. If you eat more, or exercise less, you gain weight. This is mostly false! A vigorous hour-long workout at the gym, chock full of cardio and weight training, will burn about 400 calories. A professional line-backer could eat 2,500 calories (or more) per day, so where does the remaining 2,100 calories go? You cannot expect that light walking and sleeping would need that much energy. Unfortunately, the body is not such a simple science experiment as conventional wisdom concludes. Your organs, your hormones and cells all play unique, complex and intertwined roles when exercising. When physical activity is present above normal resting rates the sympathetic nervous system produces a signal to your muscles. The result of this signal is that more new mitochondria are produced from burning energy in the form of glucose or body fat. This is key because new mitochondria functions better than old mitochondria to process and consume energy. Newly formed mitochondria improve the performance of insulin sensitivity, which is a good thing for diabetics trying to undo the harmful effect of metabolic syndrome. This effect can last up to 72 hours after exercise has been completed. This is the real reason to get active!

Before we progress, you should know that exercise does come with some side effects. You may or may not want these effects in your life; it’s up to you. Research has demonstrated exercise is beneficial to both your physical and mental health. This includes improved mental focus, cognitive functions and memory. In children, university studies have revealed direct correlations of exercising to increased academic performance. It should be safe to assume that adults should also benefit in academics with regular exercise, too. Exercise is also a natural mechanism for feeling good. You most likely have heard of a runner’s high. This condition occurs after extended cardio exercise where the brain secretes endorphins and opioids. This effect has been documented to also exist from other forms of exercise, not just long distance running. Find your favorite exercise and diabetes will lessen it’s control over your life.

Disclaimer: Please consult with your medical professional before embarking on any intense physical activity. If your body is struggling to find harmony with your current situation, there is no need to over burden yourself. For most diabetics struggling with high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or anything else it can prove best to start by altering your diet. This tends to produce the most dramatic changes that will allow your body do more intense activity.


Illustration of feet with inflammation due to diabetes and exercise

Exercising should not be painful. Use slow movements when lifting any weights.



Yet another fallacy of conventional wisdom is “no pain, no gain.” As exercise science evolves, researchers are developing a better understanding of what makes a muscle grow or for body fat to be burned and it can be done without “pain.” This catchphrase from Jane Fonda’s workout videos from the 1980’s was meant to sell her videos, not be dogma. It never was based on any credible scientific study and is best deleted from your vocabulary.

Honestly, exercise can feel challenging or even discomforting at times, but true exercise wisdom lies in understanding the difference between mild discomfort and physically hurting yourself. Discomfort is having your heart rate raised and your body covered in sweat, possibly even vomiting. An injury causes sharp pain when experienced during exercise and causes lasting effects for days or weeks. An example of pain is a sprained ankle while running or pulling a muscle during yoga or bench pressing. Find your favorite exercise and diabetes will lessen it’s control over your life.

Slow and low, that is the tempo. – Beastie Boys

Injuries and pain will kill your motivation to exercise faster than any other behavioral mechanism, so it’s best to avoid it. Knowing how to exercise properly will significantly reduce your chances of injury and quitting exercise. Three factors have been identified by professional trainers for injury prevention:

  • Reducing Weight – Using a significant amount during weight training causes excessive strain.
  • Slowing Speed of Motion – The faster pace of running vs walking or quickly jerking weights at the gym can tear muscles and tendons.
  • Minimizing Impacts – Colliding with a linebacker head-on or, more likely, the minor and frequent impacts of running causes injury.

The first two factors probably seem counter intuitive to most people. We see weight lifters adding more and more weight to their exercises to get huge, but it is possible to trigger the same (or more) muscle growth with less weight.  The speed of your repetitions during exercise are problematic because that quick motion demands changing direction at dangerous speeds. Yet, nearly everyone you see in a gym does their reps way too fast. Building muscle fibers can occur with slower speeds. The mechanism of why a muscle is triggered to grow is from time under tension. Take a familiar exercise, like bicep curls, for example. If you reduce the normal weight you use, say 50 lbs, by -25%, to 38 lbs and then do your repetition like your are in a slow-motion video, you have the winning combination. Take five seconds to curl up and five seconds to curl down, controlled and slow. Do one set of 5-10 repetitions and you are done (this should take you at least one minute of time). You may get some strange looks at the gym, but rest assured that this technique is used by several NFL teams to keep their expensive employees free from injury and on the field. A quick video of the slow-rep method.

One of the cheapest and readily available exercises to do is running. Unfortunately, this is the knee-jerk reaction to most people for where to start exercising. Running or jogging is a high-impact activity with the chances for injury far exceeding the chance for success. It is of no wonder that so many people quit exercising after their knees, hips, or feet are on fire or an ankle gets twisted. Running long distances is best left to those people in great shape. Slow it down and walk or hike instead of running. Climbing stairs or hiking a steep grade are better options for those suffering from the inflammatory states of metabolic disorder. The exception to running long distances is doing Tabata sprints in 4 minute intervals on a treadmill. But even Tabata sprints should not be attempted by beginners, it is safest to wait until your second or third month of exercising.

For those people who have not exercised in years, it is important to keep the right mindset about exercising. We often view it as work. And that this hard, trying work needs to happen in a gym to make a difference. If you imagine that exercise will hurt or be boring work, it most certainly will manifest as such. But exercise can be fun and you are allowed to enjoy it! Hell, you could even look forward to it after a long sedentary day at your deskFind the exercise that you consider fun and you will likely make a habit of it. There is no wrong answer here. If you enjoy playing basketball with your son or biking with your niece, keep doing it. Personally, I enjoy hiking with my dog in the woods every weekend, rain notwithstanding. Find your favorite exercise and diabetes will lessen it’s control over your life.


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The most accessible form of exercise to nearly everyone is walking. The barriers to entry are low – you just need a place to safely move your legs and a pair of comfortable shoes. It is one of the best ways for sedentary diabetics to begin getting active. There is some “conventional wisdom” to debunk and some hacks to make walking more effective. If you have suffered the unfortunate reality of many diabetics and lost a limb due to this disease, consider swimming and pool activities. These are discussed further below.

When we eat food our blood sugars naturally rise. In some diabetics their blood sugar levels can sky-rocket to dangerous levels. Regardless of the number on your glucometer, the best thing to do combat this rise is some light exercise, specifically walking. The 25-cent phrase is a post-prandial walk. You have possibly heard that from your medical professional(s) before. Prandial is just a fancy way for saying eating. After lunch and dinner, add in a 15-30 minute walk everyday. This little habit can yield big results. The worst thing to do after a meal is to sit, or worse yet, fall asleep. This is a guaranteed way to gain weight. If you just dined out at a restaurant or grilled out at home, head directly out for a walk afterward. The walk will put those immediate sugars in your blood to good use by being burned in your muscles.

While the post-prandial walk is good for light-duty daily maintenance, but just walking alone is not enough to counteract the effects of metabolic syndrome. We see diabetics fall into this pitfall from time to time. They go out and continuously walk for an hour a day, but never see any weight loss nor improvements in their biomarkers. Walking alone is not enough to count as exercise – you need to do moreResearch has come to the same conclusion that walking at a continuous speed will not improve your health. Another research paper did find one type of walking that produces reliable and repeatable improvements to a diabetic’s health. Interval walking is an easy daily exercise for diabetics to do to see quick results. This style of walking involves walking briskly for three minutes, then walking easy for three minutes. Alternate this pattern 10 times to make for a power-hour of walking. This is the bare minimum a diabetic can do to see results. Listen to a quick audio stream on NPR on this topic.


Adult women and young woman on group training in water with dumbbells for diabetes reversing and exercise.

Swimming is one of the best forms of exercise for diabetics.



Jumping into just any kind of exercise is a bad idea. Activity varies in intensity and skill-levels, so we have created a list of exercises best for diabetics. Try these for starters and when you find one that you enjoy, stick with it. If you cannot do any group exercises, try to get a workout buddy or friend to help keep each other motivated and on track. It’s easier to make it a successful habit as a team.

  • Swimming – The pool is a great place for diabetics. Jumping in the water is a great place to do cardio and strength training in one of the lowest impact settings. The coolness of the water will burn more calories due to the thermal loading to your body. And water also will keep you from overheating. Nearly every pool offers group fitness classes.
  • The 7-minute Workout – This popular and effective workout is covered extensively in another article. It can be done at home or when traveling on the road.
  • Walking Up Stairs/Hills/Stairmaster – Just continuous walking on a flat surface does not produce enough results (see above). But once you add in the resistance of gravity, it becomes much more intense. If you live in a flat area, climb the stairs in a bleacher for an hour or do the stairmaster at the gym.
  • Hiking – Connecting with nature is easy and therapeutic. The fresh air from the trees and the sunlight make it hard to be in a bad mood. Search for a hike with some elevation to it and you could be rewarded with an excellent viewpoint at the top. Search for hikes on Local Hikes. If you are flying solo, consider finding hiking partners or a group on Craigslist.
  • Anything Outside – When the weather allows, it is great to get active outside. The vitamin D from the sunshine will make you happy, in addition to the endorphins being released. Fresh air and trees can be a more inviting situation than a stuffy indoor gym.
  • Yoga – This time-honored exercise has gotten a lot of traction in the US lately and for good reasons. It is easy to find classes and does not need much equipment, besides a mat. Keep an eye out for a beginner’s class to get started. There are even extensive yoga DVD’s, for all levels, that can be performed at home. Yoga exercises can build strength, focus and cardio areas of your health. Search for a yoga class.
  • Any Group or Partner Exercise – The options are endless … biking, interval walking, swimming classes, yoga and more. The power of community extends to exercise, as well as, general health. Group classes can foster relationships with new and friendly people and urge you to keep your attendance.
  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – This type of workout can be applied to most types of cardio. HIIT walking is excellent, but doing Tabata sprints at a gym or outside will hack your exercise efforts to greatly improved results. The routine is to run as fast as you can for 20 seconds, then walk for 10 seconds. Repeat this pattern 8 times for a total of 4 minutes. If you feel like you’re about to puke by the last one, you know that you are doing it intensely enough. Here’s an advanced HIIT workout requiring no equipment.
  • Commercial Break Workout – Do you find yourself in front of your TV for several hours per week? If so, you should try to offset the harmful effects of sitting with a workout you can do in your living room. Here are two different routines to try out. Commercial Break Workout #1Commercial Break Workout #2. You can print these out and leave them on your coffee table as a reminder.


Dumbbell weights on a rack in a gym for exercise and diabetes reversing.

Weight training is good for building muscle strength. Cardio is better at reducing body weight.



Questions we often hear from beginners are: What produces the most weight loss – cardio or weight lifting? How much of my exercise time should I split between cardio and weight training? Should I only do cardio if I am short on time? First off, congratulations if you have made it this far along the exercise path. If you are curious about these questions, exercise must be becoming a habit for you. There are no right answers to these questions and they all vary on your own body and personal goals.

Cardio as we call it these days is technically aerobic exercise. It can vary in intensity from low to high, but is best recommended in the medium range. Reference this sheet for the aerobix or weight control definitions. It is best to avoid the high intensity areas of cardio. Too much intense cardio exercise also does not work in your favor, as it depletes glucose stores and can cause excessive inflammation throughout your body. However, extended cardio sessions are excellent for reducing overall body mass, but both fat and muscle can be consumed over time. TV shows such as Biggest Loser rely heavily on cardio to produce those dramatic, albeit rushed results. A moderate exercise program for an obese diabetic should involve 2-3 sessions per week of medium intensity cardio. This will help trigger the weight loss process. Good examples of non-painful cardio are: the stair stepper or elliptical machines, swimming, yoga, quick paced hiking or bike riding.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. – Lao Tzu

Weight lifting is a form of strength training that focuses short, but heavy repetitions to induce muscle growth. This type of training can be done with free weights, dumb bells or dedicated machines. The importance of weight training is to build complete sets of muscle groups. This type of exercise can cut body fat, in addition to, growing muscles. The drawback of strength training is that quick movements with heavy weights often produce injuries. Going slow, with a controlled movement, is the best way to build technique without causing lasting damage.

Most regular sporty people, pro-athletes and beefy gym rats incorporate both cardio and weight training for a well-rounded physique. These two forms of exercise compliment each other and can magnify your efforts when both are incorporated into a routine vs just focusing on weights alone. For those diabetics that need to lose a few pounds, it is best to do more cardio than weight training, as this will encourage weight loss over gaining muscle. Cardio should count for 50-75% of your exercise activities.


Attractive girl relaxing in bath after diabetes and exercise.

One of the best things to do after exercise is to relax with an epsom salt bath. A quick 20 minute soak can help muscles relax and absorb the critical nutrient magnesium.



A common side-effect of a workout can be soreness or stiffness in your muscles on the following days. This is natural and should be expected after a decent exercise session. This soreness is caused by microtears that occur in the muscle fibers. The input of exercise triggers your muscles to grow and rebuild during the following two to four days. Good news for those starting out at getting active – the soreness of workouts decreases after time. Your tenth workout should not be as painful afterwards as your first. Your body needs time to recover after a workout, so it is actually good not to workout everyday. It is good practice to space your weight training exercise two to three days apart, to let your body heal. The days between weight training can be filled with some medium intensity cardio, such as hiking, stairs or interval walking.

Time is most effective for your body to recover from the strains of exercise. However, there are several other ways to help reduce the discomfort of your body rebuilding itself:

  • Take Fish Oil – One of the many benefits of taking this supplement is that it is anti-inflammatory. It can work as well as taking ibuprofen or aspirin.
  • Drink Water – Your body needs fluids during the recovery process. Water is preferable over sodas, juice or energy drinks which will cause more inflammation due to the high sugar content.
  • Eat Healing Whole Foods – Food is the single largest controllable variable for your health and healing. A great workout followed up by a fast food meal can work to undo your efforts and increase your body’s inflammation. Eating from this meal plan is the easiest way to take the guesswork out of your diet.
  • Take an Epsom Salt Bath – The compound of epsom salt is mostly magnesium sulfate. This critical nutrient is needed by your body for several functions. Magnesium is needed by the body for muscle contraction and relaxation. Watch the video above.
  • Stretching – Light stretching before bedtime can decrease the tightness caused by soreness.
  • Ice First, Heat Later – Any knees or muscles that are warmer than other areas of the body could benefit from a few minutes of icing. The DIY gel packs are easy to make and do not freeze solid. Alternating cold then hot compresses can speed up blood flow to the area.


Counting Hands for number of hours of exercise and to cure diabetes

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Diabetic Lifestyle Advocate


I am the resident Diabetic Lifestyle Advocate at Five Hour Diabetic. Here I debunk conventional thinking about nutrition and exercise. My purpose is to enable diabetics to take back control of their health. And make simple recipes that honestly don’t suck.

Photos by Fotolia.