taking control of your diabetes through exercise

If you’re reading this as a diabetic, I’m sure you’ve been told that exercise is important in controlling your diabetes.

I’m going to reiterate that point.

Since being diagnosed, I’ve fluctuated between periods of having a more sedentary lifestyle, such as when I was at University and having an active lifestyle, such as when I was living in Hawaii. I’m contrasting a ½-1 hour run 3/4 times a week + yoga 3/4 times a week, whilst studying the rest of the time, with a lifestyle that involves being active as a significant part of my day, almost every day (I.E. 2 hours of surfing a day + being on my feet all day for work + yoga in the evenings).

What’s interesting about diabetes is that we have a tangible way of measuring some of the effects of what we put into and do to our bodies, in a way that non-diabetics do not.

When leading an active lifestyle, I’ve often cut my slow release insulin by around 4-5 units, sometimes significantly more (see my post on yoga). Doing exercise also cuts down on the amount of rapid acting insulin that you need after eating and helps to keep blood sugar levels down for 6-12 hours after exercising: the more vigorous the exercise, the longer the effect.


This is because active and recuperating muscles need to restore the glucose reserves burnt up during exercise. Interestingly, during and after vigorous exercise, your muscles bypass the need for insulin as the immediate demand for glucose opens the glucose receptors usually unlocked by insulin.

And the less insulin you need to take, the better.

be hypo aware

This effect means you are also at an increased risk of having a hypoglycemic episode, both during and after exercising. The longer/more vigorous the exercise, the greater the risk.

tips for avoiding an exercise-related hypo

- check your sugar levels immediately before exercising. If your sugar levels are on the lower end of the range, eat an insulin-free carbohydrate snack before starting.

- try to avoid eating anything that requires insulin less than two hours before exercising. Other than potentially making your workout uncomfortable, your rapid acting insulin will still be active and therefore bringing your blood sugar levels down as you start to exercise. This significantly increases your risk of a hypo. Remember, checking your blood sugar levels before your insulin has peaked will not give you an accurate reading.

- always bring ample emergency sugar supplies with you. I normally bring dextrose tablets as they are light and easy to carry - unless the activity is water related, as soggy dextrose tablets dissolve. In this case I either have a bottle of coke on standby or powergel packets.

- check your sugars regularly: if you are exercising for a long period and you can - check during exercise - if not, check once you have finished exercising. Check again about 1 - 2 hours after finishing.

- you will probably need to reduce your rapid acting insulin for your next meal. How much depends on the type and length of exercise. If you’ve only done some gentle stretching, I.E. pilates, you probably won’t need to reduce it at all. If you’ve gone running for two hours, or some other form of strenuous aerobic exercise, you may consider reducing it 2 - 3 units. You will have to conduct some trial and error here. Always keep sugar on standby, check regularly, and eat no less than 2 hours before going to sleep.

- it is also likely that you will need to reduce your slow release insulin. All the same points apply - again, you need to conduct some trial and error. Adjust your slow release insulin levels according to your morning readings.

do what you can

I understand that not everybody is capable of dedicating so much time to exercising. Everybody has different commitments, jobs and lifestyle preferences.

I have chosen to prioritize having an active lifestyle because I’m happiest when I’m outside running or splashing around. Since being diagnosed however and since observing the effects that exercise has on my blood sugar control, having an active lifestyle now comes first.

For all you diabetics out there: If you make that extra effort to get your heart racing and a little bit sweaty, a little more often, I guarantee you the following:

- You’ll start to see your sugar levels coming down naturally

- You’ll start reducing your insulin intake

- You’ll feel energized, even if you felt tired beforehand

- You’ll feel more positive

- You’ll feel stronger and healthier

- You’ll decrease your risk of associated complications, such as heart disease

It doesn’t have to be extreme. A jog or power walk will do just fine. Try to do at least 30 minutes. Try and get hot and sweaty. Make a social event of it because after all, it’s fun, and other than not drinking coca cola and eating donughts, it’s the best thing you can do for your diabetes.

Check out my other articles to learn more about the effects of different forms of exercise on diabetes