Benefits of physical activity

The video below provides a good introduction to the importance of exercising with diabetes. 

To download a transcript for this video please click here.

Almost everyone benefits from exercise, and if you have type 1 diabetes there are some additional ways that maintaining an active lifestyle will be good for you: 

  • Exercise can help improve your blood glucose control and if you stick at it, it can bring your HbA1c down. 
  • Exercise can increase how sensitive your body is to insulin, and in time might mean that you need less insulin.  
  • When you exercise you burn through the available glucose in your bloodstream, lowering your blood glucose level  
  • Exercise can help control your weight. 
  • In the long-term, exercise can reduce your risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart disease or high blood pressure. 
  • Exercise can make you feel better and happier. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, which work with your brain to elevate your mood and minimise pain. Many people who exercise regularly talk of the ‘natural high’ they get from it. The hard part is to actually get out and do it in the first place! 

National recommendations

National guidelines state that adults should aim to get 150 minutes of weekly physical activity. This equates to around 30 minutes of moderate activity, or 15 minutes of vigorous activity, five days a week.

Weekly exercise recommendations for adults ( aged 19 – 64 years) :

These guidelines are also suitable for disabled adults, pregnant women and new mothers. Make sure the type and intensity of your activity is appropriate for your level of fitness. Vigorous activity is not recommended for previously inactive women.

Clock icon showing 150 mins with an avatar with sweat representing moderate activity plus an avatar lifting weights representing strength activity
  • 150 minutes of moderate activity such as three 30 minute walks, two 30 minute bike rides plus strength activities on two or more days
  • Plus strength exercises on two or more days


Clock icon showing 75 mins with an avatar with sweat representing vigorous activity plus an avatar lifting weights representing strength activity
  • 75 minutes of vigorous activity such as a 30 minute run, a 45 minute spin class plus strength activities on two or more days
  • Plus strength exercises on two or more days


Clock icon showing 30 mins with an avatar with sweat representing moderate activity plus an avatar with sweat representing vigorous activity plus an avatar lifting weights representing strength activity
  • A mix of moderate & vigorous activities, such as two 30 minute runs plus 30 minutes of fast walking equates to 150 minutes of moderate activity
  • Plus strength exercises on two or more days

Weekly exercise recommendations for adults ( aged 65 years and over):

Adults aged 65 or older who are generally fit and have no health conditions that limit their mobility, should try to be active every day. The more you do the better, even if it is just light activity.

If you are worried about falling, doing exercises to improve your strength, balance and flexibility will help make you stronger and feel more confident on your feet. Speak to your GP if you have any concerns about exercising.

If you are just starting out the Public Health England Active 10 App could be useful – this encourages you to look for 10-minute slots where you can do moderate activity and to build up to do and maintain the full 30 minutes per day or more

What is moderate activity? 

Your heart rate will be raised, make you breathe faster and feel warmer. You will still be able to talk, but not sing.

•Brisk walking

•Water aerobics

•Riding a bike (flat surface)


•Pushing a lawn mower

What is vigorous activity? 

You should be breathing hard, fast and not able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.


•Fast swimming

•Riding a bike (fast or up hills)

•Football, rugby, netball or hockey

What are strength activities?

You will also want to include activities that will build up your muscle strength at least two days a week.

To get health benefits, you should do muscle strengthening exercises to the point where you need a short rest before repeating them.



•Carrying heavy shopping

•Heavy gardening

•Exercises that use your own body weight, e.g. push ups, sit ups etc.

Have you exercised in the past?

If you’ve exercised before, and just let it slip, have a think about how you managed then. Did you have any specific problems or were your blood glucose levels fine?

What type of exercise do you want to start? 

Running, gym, cycling, walking, fitness classes, swimming? These can all have different effects on your blood glucose and you may need to try more than one type of exercise to find out what works best for you. 

What are your goals? 

Think about what your overall aim is? To lose weight? Improve your blood glucose? Feel generally better? Take steps towards long-term health? It’s good to have a long-term goal as this will keep you focused. Your goals might change as you get fitter, so be sure to review them regularly. 

Do you have any worries or concerns about exercising when you have diabetes? 

It is useful to note these down and discuss them with your diabetes care team. Talking through any issues will give you a better understanding of how to maintain a healthy lifestyle when you have diabetes. 

What adjustments will you have to make to your insulin or food intake? 

You will have already read about how exercise uses up glucose, and you may need to adjust your insulin or food intake accordingly. Again, note down all of your thoughts about this issue and discuss it with your diabetes care team if you have any doubts at all. 

Do you have any problems with your eyes or feet? 

If you have had problems with your feet (numbness, pins and needles, pain, any sores), it’s all the more important that your shoes fit properly and that you make sure exercise will not do more harm than good. 

 If you have retinopathy (changes to the blood vessels in your eyes) you need to check to talk to your diabetes care team and make sure it’s safe to start exercising. This is because your blood pressure can go up when you exercise strenuously, and this can sometimes worsen retinopathy. 

Here is a record sheet to complete which might be handy to look back on once you’ve started exercising. 

Remember: if you are unsure or worried about starting exercise, your diabetes care team will be happy to give you all the information and support you need.