Does exercise lower blood sugar? Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: During exercise, your muscles take sugar away from your blood to use it for energy. With less sugar in your bloodstream, your blood sugar lowers.
But breaking down a very complex system into two mere sentences doesn't explain everything you need to know about the relationship between exercise and blood sugar.
If you monitor your blood sugar levels, you will approach exercise differently than friends who never give their blood sugar a second thought. In addition, how you prepare for physical activity will vary depending on whether you're pre-diabetic, have Type 2 or Type 1 diabetes, or have chronic low blood sugar.
Below, I'll explain how exercise lowers blood sugar and how you should approach exercise if your levels are higher or lower than average. Please note this post is intended for informational purposes only. If your blood sugar levels are outside the normal range, always speak to your physician before developing an exercise plan.
Why Do Blood Sugar Levels Matter?
Glucose is a sugar found in your blood, made from broken down carbohydrates. Glucose is transported to your cells for fast-acting energy, allowing you to tackle your workouts.
Every person needs sugar (glucose) in their blood — otherwise, you would feel constantly tired and lethargic (two common signs of low blood sugar). However, problems arise when your blood sugar levels become too high. This can be caused by genetics or lifestyle choices (such as eating too much dessert). If you have high blood sugar levels for an extended period of time, it can lead to the development of diabetes.
Your goal should be to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range (not too low, but not too high). If you are prediabetic, one of the first recommendations from your doctor will be to partake in a regular exercise routine, which helps lower your blood sugar levels. On the contrary, if you have chronically low blood sugar levels, you may need to consume more carbohydrates (sugar) before workouts (more on this below).
Does Exercise Lower Blood Sugar? Yes — Here's How
When you exercise — whether you're doing bodyweight HIIT workouts in your living room or strolling around the block — your heart rate elevates. As your heart starts pumping more blood, your muscles need an increased amount of glucose to do their job. Because while your muscles have the ability to store sugar themselves, they will need to use sugar from your bloodstream (blood glucose) to repair the toll exercise takes on your body.
Think about it this way: If you ever read about marathon runners eating energy gels (or even candy) mid-race, you've seen the relationship between blood sugar and exercise in action. Due to their prolonged form of exercise, runners continuously need to replenish their glycogen levels (stored glucose — or short-term energy) to keep up with demand.
As you make exercise part of your regular routine, your blood sugar levels will lower over time. If you have chronically high blood sugar levels, prediabetes, or Type 2 diabetes, one of the first pieces of advice you will hear from your doctor is to make diet and exercise part of daily life. As reported by the NIH, regular physical activity and weight loss have been scientifically shown to reduce blood sugar levels by up to 58% — even for high-risk individuals.
Do Certain Exercises Lower Blood Sugar More Than Others?
Here's a piece of good news: You don't need to start running half marathons or training for an Ironman to lower your blood sugar levels.
Moderate exercise can be equally effective in lowering blood sugar levels as high-caliber training. In fact, one study conducted by the American Diabetes Association showed that three 15-minute walks per day effectively lowered blood sugar levels. In other words, walking roughly 1 mile after breakfast, lunch, and dinner can help lower your blood glucose levels — without a trip to the gym (because who has time for that).
Research shows that all types of exercise can improve blood sugar levels to some extent. Therefore, the best exercise you can do is the one you will stick to — something you will try for a week, then toss aside, will not show results.
How to Approach Exercise If You Have High or Low Blood Sugar
I cannot stress this enough: If you show signs of any risk factors related to high or low blood sugar, please speak to your doctor when developing an exercise plan. That being said, here is what the research says.
If You Have Type 1 Diabetes: Try Strength Training
If you have Type 1 diabetes, your pancreas simply doesn't work the way it should, making insulin sensitivity difficult to control. In stark contrast to those with Type 2 diabetes, people with Type 1 diabetes often fear that exercise will cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
If you share this same fear, you may want to consider anaerobic forms of exercise, which uses far less oxygen than aerobic exercise (running, swimming, and speed walking). New research conducted by the NIH shows that anaerobic exercise, such as bodyweight resistance training, weight lifting, and even short sprints can reduce exercise-related declines in blood glucose levels for adults with Type 1 diabetes.
If You Have Type 2 Diabetes: Try Combining Aerobic and Resistance Training
If you are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes or are prediabetic, you have undoubtedly heard your doctor tout the health benefits of exercise.
While any regular exercise routine will help lower blood sugar levels, science shows that combining resistance training with aerobic (cardio) training can be most effective. In one study conducted by the NIH, participants diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes underwent various exercise programs. Participants were divided into four groups: a control group, a resistance-training only group, an aerobic (cardio) training-only group, and a group that combined strength and aerobic training.
While all three groups (minus the control) saw improvements in their blood sugar levels, waistline, and fat mass, the combination group saw a significant improvement in blood sugar levels when compared to the remaining groups.
If You have Chronically Low Blood Sugar Levels: Be Mindful of Rest Days
If you have chronically low blood sugar levels, you do not need to fear exercise. Exercise comes with a number of health benefits (and a long, happy life) — beyond those related to glucose levels.
With that being said, if you have low blood sugar you will approach exercise differently than the aforementioned groups. You should digest some sort of fast-acting carbohydrates (such as grains, fruit, or even fruit juice) 2-3 hours prior to working out. If you go to a gym, you may want to keep an extra carbohydrate source stored in your gym bag (like raisins or a muesli bar). If you work out at home, good news — simply keep carbs stocked in your fridge or cupboards for easy access.
Since exercise does lower blood sugar, you will want to monitor your blood sugar levels prior to exercise. To do this, purchase a simple blood glucose monitor and test your levels one hour before working out. If your blood sugar levels are lower than your normal range, you may want to take a rest day, or work out later in the day when your blood sugar levels are higher.
Lastly, don't feel a shred of guilt if you need to take a rest day — every body is different, and your only priority is to take care of yours.
The Best Exercise to Lower Blood Sugar Is the One You Will Do
A healthy diet and exercise are two of the best things you can do for your health. If you experience chronically high blood sugar levels, one of the first pieces of advice given by your doctor is to take part in a regular exercise routine.
Science shows that any form of exercise — from jogging and swimming to the most sweaty-worthy HIIT classes — will lower blood sugar levels to some degree. It is far more important to pick a type of exercise you enjoy (and can commit to consistently) than to select an exercise routine that's scientifically shown to improve blood glucose levels but you hate doing it.
For me, sticking to an exercise routine means selecting workouts that I enjoy, and that don't take a lot of time, money, or fancy equipment. Given my busy schedule, I have a better chance of completing a bodyweight circuit in my living room than spending 20 minutes commuting to a gym.If you're like me, and can barely squeeze 45 minutes a day to work out, you might want to try the QuarantineFit.Life bodyweight workout plan. You can do each workout from the comfort of your living room, whenever your schedule suits you. Plus, you'll find a number of aerobic and anaerobic exercises to enjoy — the scientifically proven best way to lower blood sugar levels.