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Health Insights Illinois

Move to improve: Using exercise to prevent or manage diabetes

Person performing a concentration bicep curl with a dumbbell

Diabetes is the eighth leading cause of death in Illinois and in the U.S. It also doubles an individual’s risk of heart disease or stroke, the first and fifth leading causes of death respectively. November is national diabetes month, and chances are, you or someone you love has diabetes or prediabetes. In Illinois, 1.3 million people or 12.5% of the adult population have diabetes, even more alarming – about 341,000 of them don’t know it! An additional 3.6 million adults in Illinois have prediabetes, which typically progresses to type 2 diabetes within 5 years if left untreated.

Like many chronic diseases, the burden of diabetes is not evenly spread. In Illinois, 14.2% of Hispanic adults and 12.8% of Black adults have diabetes compared to just 10.7% of non-Hispanic White adults. Additionally, Illinoisans living in non-metropolitan areas have a much higher rate of diabetes (17%) than those living in metropolitan areas (10%). Diabetes is costly, those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes have an average of $16,750 in annual medical expenses, which is over two times more than a person without diabetes. The high cost of diabetes is especially burdensome considering those with a household income of less than $35,000 have a higher prevalence of diabetes than those living in wealthier households.

Diabetes by the numbers can be scary, but luckily there are several steps you can take (for free!) to reduce your risk of diabetes, prevent or prolong prediabetes from becoming type 2 diabetes, or manage your existing diabetes.

What is Diabetes?

The cells in your body need to take in sugar from your blood for energy. A hormone called insulin is needed for the sugar to enter the cells. In a person without diabetes, cells have adequate insulin sensitivity, and are able to take in the sugar for energy. When a person has prediabetes, cells become less sensitive to the insulin making it harder for the cells to take in sugar. This leaves more sugar in the blood causing higher levels of blood glucose. As prediabetes progresses to type 2 diabetes, cells are increasingly resistant to insulin and the body has trouble producing enough insulin to keep up. High blood sugar levels can damage the body leading to kidney disease, heart disease, and vision loss.

Have you been screened for prediabetes or diabetes recently? If you have elevated blood glucose levels, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication. In addition to medication, making a few changes to your lifestyle can help control your blood sugar.

Exercise and Diabetes

When it comes to reducing your risk of diabetes or addressing a diagnosis of prediabetes, the best medicine is action! Along with healthy eating, exercise is one of the best ways to keep blood sugar levels low. Regular exercise can help reverse prediabetes, prolong the progression of prediabetes to type 2 diabetes, or work along with medication to control blood sugar for those with type 2 diabetes.

Exercise helps control blood sugar levels in a few ways:

  • Exercise can increase glucose uptake by at least 40%, taking more sugar out of your blood
  • Exercise increases insulin sensitivity, making it easier for your cells to use blood sugar for energy
  • Exercise can help build muscle, and muscle cells use more energy (take up more sugar) than other types of cells in your body
  • Along with healthy eating, exercise can promote weight loss. For individuals who are overweight or have obesity, losing just 5-7% of your bodyweight can reduce your risk of diabetes

Tips for Exercising to Prevent or Manage Diabetes

To manage blood sugar levels with exercise, research shows that a combination of both aerobic exercise and strength training is more effective than either of these types of exercise alone. Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least 5 days per week. If you’re new to exercise, start with 10 to 15-minute sessions and add 5 minutes every few weeks. Find an activity you enjoy such as walking, swimming, dancing, or a group fitness class at your local recreation center or gym.
  • Complete strength exercises 2 to 3 days per week using exercises that target the major muscle groups of the body. Aim to complete 2 or 3 sets of about 10 repetitions of each exercise. Strength exercises can be done in a gym with weights or at home with little to no equipment. Here’s a full body strength routine you can do at home!
  • Since insulin sensitivity is improved for 24-48 hours after exercise, avoid having more than 1 day between exercise sessions.
  • Once you’ve established an exercise routine, consider adding interval training or HIIT workouts 1-2 days per week.

Before beginning a new exercise regime, be sure to check with your health care provider to see what kind of exercise is safe for you. If you’re taking medication to control your blood sugar levels, ensure your blood glucose is above 100mg/dL before starting a workout to prevent your blood sugar from dropping too low while being active. If your blood sugar is above 240mg/dL, it may be too high to exercise safely. It’s also important to check your feet routinely after exercising to care for any blisters, sores, or irritations.

Remember, you’re only one walk or workout away from lowering your blood sugar today!


Printable Fact Sheet

Fact Sheet Text: Exercise for Diabetes

November is National Diabetes Month. Take action now to prevent or help manage diabetes!

    Diabetes Facts

    • Diabetes prevalence in Illinois
      • 14.2% of Hispanic adults have diabetes.
      • 12.8% of Black adults have diabetes.
      • 10.7% of white adults have diabetes.
      • 6.2% of Asian adults have diabetes.
    • Diabetes is the eighth leading cause of death in Illinois.
    • 341,000 people in Illinois don’t know that they have diabetes; ask your doctor for diabetes screening today!

    What is Diabetes?

    Diabetes is when your body is unable to properly use or produce insulin, a hormone needed for sugar to enter cells, this causes high blood sugar (glucose) levels.

    What Happens When You Have High Blood Sugar?

    It can damage the body and lead to kidney disease, heart disease, and vision loss.

    How Exercise Can Help Diabetes

    Exercise can help reverse prediabetes, prolong the progression of prediabetes to type 2 diabetes, and work with medication and diet to control blood sugar.

    • Exercise can help take more sugar out of your blood by at least 40%.
    • It’s easier for your cells to use blood sugar for energy for up to 48 hours after exercise.
    • For individuals who are overweight or have obesity, losing just 5 to 7% of your body weight can reduce the risk of diabetes.

    Tips for Exercising to Prevent or Manage Diabetes

    Exercising most days with a combination of aerobic and strength training is most effective for managing blood sugar levels. Aerobic exercise includes activities such as walking, swimming, or dancing. Strength training includes activities such as lifting weights or at-home body weight work outs. When strength training, it’s recommended to complete 8-10 exercises with 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions of each exercise.

    How to Safely Exercise with Diabetes

    1. Consult your healthcare provider to see what exercise is safe for you.
    2. Ensure your blood glucose is between 100-240mg/dL before exercising.
    3. Check your feet for sores or irritations post-exercise.
    About the author

    Caitlin Fredericks is the Integrated Health Disparities Physical Education and Health Specialist. She is an ACSM certified personal trainer and an ACE certified group fitness instructor and has diverse experience working at the intersection of education and physical activity. Caitlin’s work focuses on helping community members gain knowledge and skills to live an active, healthy lifestyle. The Integrated Health Disparities program tackles health issues with an integrated lens of physical, mental, and community health providing programs and resources to address health inequities.


    ACSM Exercise is Medicine

    American Diabetes Association

    America's Health Rankings

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Illinois Department of Public Health

    National Academy of Sports Medicine