How Diet and Exercise Can Help Diabetics

Eating well-balanced meals, along with regular physical activity is the key to a better life while managing your diabetes. When you’re diabetic, obesity or weight gain increases your risk for complications. Losing just a few pounds through exercise along with a healthy diet can help with your diabetes control and reduce your risk for other health problems.

Maintaining a Healthy Diet

If you’re diagnosed with diabetes it’s important to eat in moderation. That means no skipping meals! Even if you are trying to lose weight, you need to eat regular meals to keep your blood glucose and metabolism on track.

Typically, a person needs to eat about every four to six hours during the day to maintain energy levels. “People with Type 2 diabetes usually have better blood glucose control if their meals and carbohydrates are spaced evenly throughout the day,” says Connie Crawley, a nutrition and health specialist for the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.

What to Eat

People with diabetes have the same nutritional needs as anyone else. Rather than a restrictive diet, a diabetes diet is a healthy-eating plan that’s naturally rich in nutrients and low in fat, calories, and sodium with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In fact, a diabetes diet is the best eating plan for everyone. Smart choices for food include:

  • Veggies
  • Whole grains
  • Fruits
  • Non-fat dairy products
  • Beans
  • Lean meats
  • Poultry
  • Fish

According to the American Diabetes Association, “There is no one perfect food, so including a variety of different foods and watching portion sizes is the key to a healthy diet. Also, make sure your choices from each food group provide the highest quality nutrients you can find. In other words, pick foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber over those that are processed.”

Watch portion sizes:

Nutrition labels offer examples of healthy portion sizes. Be prepared for a wake-up call – most people eat much more than a healthy serving!

Keep a diary:

Make notes of what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat and how it makes you feel. Share this diary with a dietitian or diabetes educator, so you can work together to make a plan for improvement (American Association of Diabetes Educators).

Create a Meal Plan

According to ADA, “A diabetes meal plan is a guide that tells you how much and what kinds of food you can choose to eat at meals and snack times. A good meal plan should fit in with your schedule and eating habits.” The right meal plan will help you improve your blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol numbers and also help keep your weight on track.

Great Resources for Meal Planning

  • The Plate Method
  • Carb Counting
  • Glycemic Index

Activities & Fitness

According to, “Diabetes management requires awareness of what makes your blood sugar level rise and fall, and how to control these day-to-day factors. Regular physical activity, along with a healthy diet can help with your diabetes control and reduce your risk for other health problems.”

Maintaining a Healthy Weight 

Exercise, or physical activity, includes anything that gets you moving, such as walking, dancing, or working in the yard. Regular physical activity is important for everyone, but it is especially important for people with diabetes and those at risk for diabetes.

That doesn’t mean you need to do a triathlon or squat 400 pounds. Doing things you enjoy while staying active is the goal. You can swim, play tennis, or walk or ride a bike with family and friends.

What About Food and Insulin?

If you plan to exercise more than an hour after eating, it’s a good idea to have a snack. Generally, it’s good to have a high-carbohydrate snack such as six ounces of fruit juice or half of a plain bagel. If you’re doing heavy exercise such as aerobics, running or handball, you may need to eat a bit more such as a half of a meat sandwich and a cup of milk.

If you haven’t eaten for over an hour or if your blood sugar is less than 100 to 120, eat or drink something like an apple or a glass of milk before you exercise. Carry a snack with you in case of low blood sugar.

If you use insulin, exercise after eating, not before. Test your blood sugar before, during and after exercising. Don’t exercise when your blood sugar is more than 240.

If you’re not an insulin user and dependent on pills, test your blood sugar before and after exercising.


See your doctor before you begin an exercise program. Your doctor can tell you about the kinds of exercise that are good for you depending on how well your diabetes is controlled and any complications or other conditions you may have. Here are some tips for starting.

Below are some examples of aerobic activities:

  • Brisk walking (outside or inside on a treadmill)
  • Bicycling/Stationary cycling indoors
  • Dancing • Low-impact aerobics
  • Swimming or water aerobics
  • Playing tennis
  • Stair climbing

Below are examples of strength training activities:

  • Using resistance bands
  • Lifting light weights or objects like canned goods or water bottles at home
  • Exercises using your own body weight to work muscles… (examples are push-ups, sit ups, squats, lunges, wall-sits, etc)
  • Classes that involve strength training

When is Exercising a Problem?

If your blood sugar level is over 300 mg/dl, if you are sick, short of breath, have ketones in your urine or are experiencing any tingling, pain or numbness in your legs, don’t exercise. Also if your medication is peaking, it’s better not to exercise.