If you’re living with type 2 diabetes (T2D), you’ve likely been prompted to move more. Physical activity offers a breadth of benefits that are especially powerful for those over age 50, says Pouya Shafipour, M.D., a family and obesity medicine specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“Regular exercise has been shown to have a profound effect on diabetes management, even with physical and mental shifts related to getting older,” he says. “Age-related changes in the body, such as lower muscle mass and different metabolic regulation that makes it easier to gain weight, are challenging enough when you don’t have diabetes, but they can be particularly challenging if you do have the condition.”
When starting any exercise program, Dr. Shafipour suggests checking with your endocrinologist to discuss safe ways to get more activity without too many fluctuations in your blood-sugar levels.
Given the wealth of fitness options, it can feel difficult to know where to start. Narrow it down by considering these four choices, especially given their benefits related to managing type 2 diabetes:
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Why do it: Sometimes called cardiovascular exercise or cardio, aerobic exercise improves the function of your cardiovascular system in several ways, including better oxygen delivery throughout the body, improved blood flow, and lowered inflammation. These can all help decrease risks of heart issues for people with T2D, says Dr. Shafipour.
One of the most serious complications of type 2 diabetes is a condition called diabetic cardiomyopathy, which occurs when the disease negatively impacts cardiovascular function. According to research published in Frontiers in Endocrinology, aerobic exercise not only lowers risk of developing this complication, it may also help reverse the problem in early stages, and prevent it from developing into heart failure in later stages.
Cardio exercise can help prevent circulation issues as well, which is another significant issue that people with type 2 diabetes can face. That’s because high blood-glucose levels cause fatty deposits to form inside blood vessels, and diabetes-related inflammation can worsen this effect, Dr. Shafipour explains. That tends to lead to problems like numb hands and feet, as well as slow wound healing. Also, as you do aerobic exercise more often, your body becomes better at processing glucose and your insulin sensitivity increases, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) adds.
How to do it: The good news is that you’re likely already doing at least some aerobic activity. Every time you walk, dance, or ride a bike, you’re getting a cardio workout. Other choices include swimming, kayaking, rowing, jumping rope, hiking, and running. Even gym-class staples like jumping jacks are considered cardio.
Why do it: Diabetes is an independent risk factor for low muscle strength, as well as a decline in overall muscle function, according to the ADA. When you add age-related changes into the mix, strength training is more crucial if you’re living with type 2 diabetes and you’re over age 50. That’s because strength training improves body composition (by increasing muscle mass), bone mineral density, blood pressure, cardiovascular health, insulin sensitivity, and mental health.
For older adults with T2D, strength training can also provide a boost to joint support and stability, an important consideration since the condition comes with increased risk of various bone and joint issues, according to the Mayo Clinic.
How to do it: Also called resistance training, strength workouts can be done with free weights—such as dumbbells or barbells—as well as muscle-group-specific machines at a gym, resistance bands, and even body weight if you don’t have any equipment.
Why do it: Two issues that tend to exacerbate type 2 diabetes symptoms are chronic stress and sleep disruption, according to Dr. Shafipour. Both of these tend to throw off hormone regulation and prompt inflammation, he says, which can make it more difficult to manage the condition.
A mind-body exercise like yoga focuses on pairing breathing with movement, and it’s been shown to influence stress reduction and therefore help with glucose control. For example, a scientific review published in the journal Endocrinology and Metabolism examined yoga’s effects on T2D and found that a regular practice helps lower stress levels and as a result may contribute to better glycemic control.
How to do it: Aim to take a beginner yoga class in real life, so that a certified instructor can oversee your positioning and help make safe modifications to poses that may feel uncomfortable. There are also numerous online and app-based yoga classes available.
Interval or Circuit Training
Why do it: A form of workout that involves a series of exercises interspersed with rest periods, interval or circuit training can vary widely in terms of which exercises are done, how long a workout can be, and what level of intensity you choose. Interval training can improve overall type 2 diabetes management as well as deliver benefits like reversing age-related changes, increasing endurance, and improving cardiovascular fitness.
How to do it: The ADA suggests choosing moderate-intensity training, such as a circuit of exercises that uses light weights and high repetitions. If you’re living with diabetes and are new to interval training, a focus on lower intensity for workouts is a good starting point.
No matter what exercise you choose…
Ramp up gradually—try starting with a walk after dinner, for example—and remember that the more you do over time, the more benefits will stack up, Dr. Shafipour says.