When you exercise with weights or other forms of resistance, it can be especially helpful for controlling blood sugar levels. “A lot of the resistance training actually improves insulin sensitivity,” says Dawn Sherr, RD, a certified diabetes educator with the American Association of Diabetes Educators. “Your blood sugar may not be as elevated if you develop more muscles.”
Lift Weights to Control Type 2 Diabetes
When you do strength training exercises that target muscles, your body uses glucose from your bloodstream to power them, which can help clear out excess sugar from your system. “It actually signals the glucose to enter the muscle cells,” says Joey Gochnour, MEd, RD, LD, a nutritionist and certified personal trainer with the Division of Recreational Sports at the University of Texas in Austin. Toned muscles also store glucose more effectively, and that helps regulate blood sugar even when you’re at rest.
Strength training also helps build stronger bones, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it promotes weight loss — an important goal for many with type 2 diabetes — because the more muscles you have, the more calories you burn.
Keep in mind that strengthening exercises are just one part of a well-rounded fitness program. In addition to strength training twice a week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults also get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as jogging or cycling, each week.
“I always recommend that people do both,” Gochnour says. In fact, while both aerobics and strength training are helpful when you have diabetes, a long-term program of both produces the greatest health benefits, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
Three Strength Training Exercises to Get You Started
Motivated to add strength training to your fitness routine, but not sure how? Here’s how to get started.
If you’ve never done strength training, start slow and resist overdoing it. Steady progression is key. For instance, with exercises involving handheld weights, choose a weight that you will be able to lift for one set of 8 to 10 reps, suggests the CDC. Work toward completing one set of 15 reps each and then move on to higher weights and/or two to three sets.
Always rest muscles at least one day between sessions. If you feel sore, ease up until you feel better. “You can still make progress if you only train once a week,” Gochnour says.
You can strength-train with free weights, resistance bands, and exercises that use your own body weight as resistance. At the gym, try weight machines, which are often better for learning proper form. Gochnour suggests working with a personal trainer to find the best exercises for you.
If you want to do strength training exercises at home that require little or no extra equipment, these simple moves can get you started:
Chair dips. Stand with your back to a sturdy chair or low table. Sit on the edge of the chair, with your arms behind you. Place your palms on the edge, fingers pointed toward you. Lift your buttocks off the chair and walk your feet forward, making sure your knees don’t bend past your toes. Slowly bend your elbows, lowering your body down, and then straighten. This works several upper-body muscles, including the triceps (rear upper arm), deltoids (part of the shoulder), and pectoral (chest) muscles.
Wall squats. Stand with your back against a wall, feet about a foot in front of you. Bend your knees as you lower your back along the wall until you are in a position similar to one you’d be in if sitting in a chair. Hold for several seconds, then return to standing. This works the quadriceps and hamstrings (front and back of the thighs).
Curls. Hold a lightweight dumbbell in each hand, arms at your sides with palms facing up. Holding elbows steady, curl up your forearms to bring the weights almost to your shoulders, then return to starting position. If you don’t have dumbbells, try this with two soup cans or water bottles. Curls work the biceps (muscles on the front of upper arms).
For each of these exercises, aim for one or two sets of 8 to 12 repetitions.
Managing Blood Sugar While Strength Training
Check with your doctor before starting a strength training program. As with any exercise, strength training can lower your blood sugar level, so you should check your blood sugar before and after exercising to see what kind of effect the activity has on your body. If your blood sugar dips too low, you may want to have a snack before or during your routine. It may also be a good idea to talk to your doctor about changing your medications to allow for your increased physical activity.
Above all, be smart about your new exercise routine to keep it safe and enjoyable. “The best thing to do is start slow,” Sherr says. “You can gradually increase the intensity and reach your goals.”