The Best Way to Exercise If You Have Type 2 Diabetes, According to Science

We recently reported that nearly 40% of Americans are at-risk for developing type 2 diabetes by 2060, so more and more scientists are hurrying to get to the root of how to potentially prevent—or slow the progression of—type 2. While there is a strong genetic link, many health experts agree that it is possible for some individuals to make lifestyle choices that can help their type 2 diabetes go into remission.

Of course, eating more whole grains, fiber, healthy fats, protein and fruits and veggies can play a huge part in reducing risk of type 2 diabetes-related complications, but that’s not the only feature to focus on. Your stress levels, sleep quality and fitness can move the needle, too. That latter topic is the focus of one recent study that sheds even more light on how and when to sweat for blood sugar success.

According to research published in the June 2023 edition of The American Journal of Medicine, a combination of heart rate-boosting cardio and strength training performed in the afternoon or evening after a meal is best for individuals with type 2 diabetes.

What This Type 2 Diabetes Study Found

“The challenge with this is that most, if not all, people know exercise is good for them but they don’t know the best approach,” study author Steven Malin, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, tells Rutgers Today.

So to help medical pros have more accurate and specific health guidance to offer their patients, Malin and his team of researchers analyzed dozens of previous studies to summarize the best time and types of fitness to positively impact blood sugar levels among those with type 2 diabetes. In other words, they dove into the current database of scientific knowledge to try to pinpoint the exercise Rx to help combat high blood sugar.

By the way, Malin and several other faculty members in the kinesiology department at Rutgers are proponents of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)’s stance of viewing “exercise as medicine.” They believe it should be part of a multifaceted strategy to reduce the risk of complications from type 2 diabetes and other conditions that are impacted by lifestyle choices, such as heart disease and dementia.

“We targeted this issue by focusing on a few key parameters: the utility of aerobics versus weightlifting, the time of day that is optimal for exercise, whether to exercise before or after meals and whether we have to lose weight to get benefits or not,” Malin adds to Rutgers Today.

We’ll cut to the chase and answer that last question first. Nope, echoing the findings of a December 2021 study about how physical fitness (rather than weight) is key to reducing health risks, you need not lose weight to see the benefits from exercise if you have type 2 diabetes.

“That is because exercise can lower body fat and increase muscle mass,” Malin explains.

In terms of how and when, the study reports that these are the features of the best workout plan for those with type 2:

  • Any form of regular aerobic activity that increases heart rate, such as walking, swimming or biking
  • Regular resistance exercise using body weight, dumbbells or resistance bands
  • A sweat session later in the day may help improve insulin sensitivity and allow the body to better control its blood sugar levels
  • Little movement breaks throughout the day—especially after meals—can amplify the benefits

“In short, any movement is good and more is generally better,” Malin summarizes in the study recap. “The combination of aerobic exercise and weightlifting is likely better than either alone. Exercise in the afternoon might work better than exercise in the morning for glucose control, and exercise after a meal may help slightly more than before a meal.”

The Bottom Line

A new study says that a combo of cardio and strength training, ideally in the afternoon or early evening and after a meal, plus mini movement breaks, are ideal to aid in blood sugar stability. This blend aligns with the WHO’s exercise recommendations for all of us, so whether you have type 2 diabetes or are trying to reduce your risk for developing it, these strategies are a wise move.

Unsure of exactly how to start? No sweat. Try our walking plan to lower blood sugar to check the aerobic box, then pepper in our best strength training exercises for people with diabetes. And if your schedule and space allows, walk for 2 minutes after each meal and snack (bonus points if you make it a walking meditation!) to lower your blood sugar.