We all know that exercise is important for everyone, and diabetics are no exception to that rule. Exercise helps control weight, regulates blood sugar levels, and improves circulation. Regular exercise can also reduce stress, cholesterol, and high blood pressure. If you’re ready to begin a new exercise routine, or if you’d like to reevaluate your current level of exercise, there is one question you might want to ask yourself: as a diabetic, what kind of exercise is best for me, aerobic exercise or weight resistance training?

Aerobic exercise, commonly referred to as cardio, raises the heart rate and the breathing rate while working major muscle groups. Cardio burns blood sugar and stored fat, and is recommended by most doctors for their diabetic patients. Dancing, swimming, aerobics, tennis, basketball, and bicycling are all forms of aerobic exercise. Cardio offers all of the benefits mentioned above, and is especially important for diabetics.

Cardio workouts, though, do little to increase muscle mass. To increase your overall fitness, the most effective way to do so is to add weight resistance training to your cardio routine. Using dumbbells or weight resistance machines two to three times a week can lead to a marked improvement in muscle gain and fat loss over the long term. Moreover, when you gain muscle, you increase the number of calories that you burn not only during your workouts, but all day long.

Another form of weight resistance training uses the weight of your own body: body weight exercises. Push-ups, crunches, lunges, squats, pull-ups, dips, and other body weight exercises require no special equipment and can be done in the privacy of your own home. If you abhor the gym, body weight exercises may be the right option for you. Many athletes today, such as gymnasts, martial artists, and wrestlers, use body weight exercises to develop a strong overall physique without overdeveloping specific groups of muscles. Even the military uses body weight exercises to whip new recruits into shape! Body weight exercises also offer the advantage of fewer injuries versus traditional weight resistance training.

If weight resistance training is truly unappealing to you, try to incorporate cardiovascular exercises that are also weight-bearing. These include walking, stair climbing, jogging, elliptical training, and other similar exercises.

To make your exercise routine well-rounded, flexibility exercises are important. Stretching and yoga are excellent ways to increase or maintain flexibility, and are gentle enough for anyone to do. In addition, warming up before exercise and cooling down afterwards help prevent injuries and will allow you to get the most out of your workout. Whatever exercise you choose, be sure to follow these three rules:

  1. Check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine.
  2. Monitor your blood sugar level carefully, before, during, and after exercise. Keep snacks available during workouts in case you experience a drop in blood sugar.
  3. If you experience numbness in the feet, check each foot carefully every day for blisters, cuts, or other injuries. Be sure your footwear fits properly and offers as much support as you need. If your shoes become worn, replace them regularly.

Now get on out there and exercise! Whether you choose cardio, weight resistance training, or a combination of the two, all exercise is of benefit to diabetics.

* Graff MR, Rubin RR, Walker EA: How diabetes specialists treat their own diabetes: findings from a study of the AADE and ADA membership. Diabetes Educ 26:460–467, 2000.