How to Add Strength Training to Your Exercise Routine When You Have Diabetes

Strength training helps to prevent health problems like heart disease, muscle mass loss and osteoporosis. (Getty Images)
You’ve probably heard a lot about the benefits of aerobic exercise when you have diabetes (and even if you don’t). Exercise can help shape up your body, boost your mood and prevent chronic diseases.

But have you made strength training a regular part of your exercise routine?
Strength training also has a multitude of benefits if you have diabetes. First, it can reduce fasting blood glucose levels for 24 hours, says Cary Raffle, a certified personal training and certified orthopedic exercise specialist in New York.

Strength training also can assist with weight loss. As you build more lean muscle through strength training, your body burns more calories at rest, Raffle adds.
Strength training also helps to prevent health problems like heart disease, muscle mass loss and osteoporosis, says certified personal trainer and running coach Meghan Kennihan of La Grange, Illinois.

Consistency is key when it comes to exercise, and strength training plays a role there. “It is really important for people with diabetes to keep engaged in a consistent exercise program,” Raffle says. “Strength training can be an easy way to add variety and interest.”

If you’re new to strength training, you may have a lot of questions about how to proceed. Here’s some guidance from fitness pros.

How often should I do strength training? The general guideline for exercise is 150 minutes a week (or 30 minutes, five times a week) to enhance your health or 300 minutes (one hour, five times a week) to lose weight, Raffle said. If you’re new to physical activity, check with your doctor first regarding any restrictions or limitations. If you’re approved to exercise, you can slowly work up to the recommended timing.

“Strength training at least two times per week in addition to at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-hard intensity aerobic exercise at least five days a week can help maintain weight and reduce the risk for heart disease,” says registered dietitian Jessica Levings of Balanced Pantry in Orlando, Florida.

For someone with more exercise experience, Kennihan recommends five days a week of exercise with three days that focus on strength training and two days that are cardio or high intensity interval training, or HIIT. “For those looking to lose weight, HIIT is going to be very important and can even be included as part of the strength routine as a ‘finisher’ or a five- to 10-minute intense total body exercise at the end,” she says.

[Read: Diabetes and Exercise: How to Dive In.]

The good news is that you don’t have to do a large chunk of exercise all at once. “It can be helpful to think of your minutes of exercise being deposited into a piggy bank,” Raffle says. “Put in as much as you can each day, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be equal.”
Consider doing cardio and strength training on alternating days. It’s important to give your muscles a rest day between strength sessions. And try to keep your scheduling mix of cardio and strength training simple for better consistency. “The most important thing about your exercise program is that you stick to it,” Raffle says.

Do I need to do anything different to monitor my blood sugar? Generally speaking, this is more of an issue when you use insulin. Ask your doctor for his or her advice, and check your blood sugar before and after a strength training session so you can see how it affects you.

It can be helpful to eat a light snack with 15 grams of carbohydrates (such as a small piece of fruit) before a strength training session, Levings says. If you plan to exercise for an hour or more, include an ounce of protein to help slow digestion and prevent low blood sugar. “Five to six whole-grain crackers with one ounce of cheese or one tablespoon of peanut butter are good choices,” she says.

As your body builds more muscle, it will be able to store glucose more effectively, and that helps to regulate blood sugar even when you are at rest, Kennihan says.

Do I need to go to a gym to do strength training? Not necessarily. There are plenty of bodyweight exercises you can do at home, in addition to the use of hand weights, dumbbells and resistance bands. “There’s an endless variety of equipment, videos, classes and other ways of getting yourself into a fitness program, but the real issue is finding what’s going to work for you,” Raffle says.

However, the many choices for exercising can be overwhelming, and it can be hard to match the right program to your goals, physical fitness level and general health on your own. You may want to invest in some sessions with a qualified personal trainer to see which equipment and exercises are right for you, Raffle recommends.

How many reps should I do? Ten to 15 repetitions of the same exercise is a reasonable start, but it can vary depending on your level of physical fitness. After a couple of weeks, as that set becomes easier, add a second set. “Once you’re able to do all the sets and all the reps with more energy in the tank, it’s time to increase the weight,” Kennihan advises. For example, you may start doing squats using only your body weight but after you do three sets of 15 without much fatigue, add weight such as dumbbells or a barbell.

[See: The 10 Most Underrated Exercises, According to Top Trainers.]

It’s important to change up your routine from time to time so you don’t get bored and so that you challenge your body. Add exercises that strengthen your core or that you have to perform on an unstable surface – for example, standing exercises, single-leg exercises or those that use stability balls and balance boards, Raffle says.

What kind of strength training exercises should I do? The answer is a little different for everyone. You may have other health problems that affect what you can do, such as high blood pressure, a knee problem or a herniated disk, for example, Raffle says. “All of these factors need to be addressed in a personalized exercise program,” he says.

That said, some examples of great strength training exercises you can do on your own include:

Pushups (You can do them on your knees, feet, or pushing against a wall, Kennihan says.)
Kennihan likes compound movements like squats and pushups that activate several muscles at once.

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