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Benefits of Strength Training for Diabetes

5 Minute Read

Compelling research has shown that resistance exercises like push-ups, squats, and lunges are beneficial for blood sugar management. Here's how to get started.

Aerobic exercise has always held a prominent role in the recommendations of the American Diabetes Association for the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. This isn’t surprising because aerobic exercises – like swimming, running, walking, and biking – offer a lot to help manage blood glucose. But is it the best choice for diabetes management? 

Strength training, also called resistance training or weight training, may offer a starting point to enhance the effects of aerobic exercise for those living with diabetes. If you’re new to resistance training, it’s a type of physical activity that requires the body’s muscles to move against an opposing force. It usually involves some type of equipment (like elastic resistance bands or free weights) but can be performed through bodyweight exercises like push-ups and squats.  

“Resistance exercise has not been traditionally touted as a therapy, it’s all about aerobic exercise,” said Dr. Stuart Phillips, a research chair in skeletal muscle health at McMaster University. “In my view, resistance exercise is an exercise form that offers many things – strength, mitigating the loss of muscle with aging – and is beneficial for diabetes also.”  

In the last few decades, compelling research has shown that strength training is as good or better than aerobic exercise for keeping blood glucose levels in check. Because of this and other benefits, Phillips said that resistance exercises should be recommended more often as a primary tool for diabetes management. To better understand the benefits of strength training, let’s take a look at what makes it unique. 

Benefits of resistance exercises for diabetes

Improved insulin sensitivity

Studies have shown that strength training improves insulin sensitivity. How exactly? When you lift weights or do other resistance exercises, you increase muscle size, which allows your body to process glucose more efficiently and decreases its need for insulin.

While aerobic exercise has its own benefits, studies have found aerobic exercise alone doesn’t produce the same level of muscle mass and strength as resistance exercises. This makes strength training a great option if you’re looking to reduce insulin needs.

Better blood sugars

Multiple studies show strength training is as effective (and possibly even more so) as aerobic exercise in helping people with diabetes manage their blood glucose. 

Resistance exercises also appear to regulate blood sugar for a longer period than aerobic exercise; while aerobic exercise lowers blood glucose during an exercise session, the blood sugar-lowering effects of strength training can last up to 24 hours post-exercise. 

Quick and easy

Resistance exercises may be a good alternative for those who find it difficult to reach the recommended 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week. Studies have shown that only 24% of adults between 18 and 55 and 2% of adults over 65 meet that quota. 

Strength training is time-efficient and can easily be done at home using your body weight (think push-ups) or minimal equipment (like resistance bands or even milk jugs). An extra benefit is that it will help maintain much-needed muscle mass, which people start losing at a rate of 3-8% per decade after age 30 and accelerates by age 60. 

Loss of muscle mass can be detrimental to overall health and further chronic disease risk. Moreover, as people age, declining muscle strength and loss of mobility are likely to reduce our overall physical activity, which can trigger or worsen challenges around glucose management.

The good news is that this trend can be reversed – it’s never too late to rebuild or build muscle.

How to start 

It may sound intimidating, but making strength training part of your day can be easy. The great thing about resistance exercises is they’re versatile; you can create a workout anywhere, any time, no matter your fitness level. 

As with any exercise routine, consistency is key. Training two to three times a week and targeting all major muscle groups is a good way to start. There is no one “ideal” workout, as everybody is different. 

“I am a fan of time-efficient workouts that are generally whole-body, targeting major muscle groups – chest, back, and legs – and are manageable in a short time,” said Phillips. 

Though there are many different types of resistance exercises, here’s a sample routine Phillips suggests. An extra benefit is that no equipment is required. For all exercises, rest for 90 seconds between sets.

  • Squats: Three sets of 10-15 repetitions. 
  • Push-ups: Three sets of 10 repetitions (on the floor or against the wall)
  • Lunges: Three sets of 10-15 repetitions 
  • Bridges: Three sets of 10-15 repetitions
  • Planks: Three sets of 10-30 second holds

Aim for at least three sets per muscle group, ideally performed twice weekly for 30-40 minutes max each session.

If you’re new to strength training exercises, the first step is learning the proper form. Some excellent online sources include the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which has an extensive exercise video library free online, and the Mayo Clinic Strength Training Guide

The bottom line

Strength training can be a safe and useful tool for diabetes management – plus it’s quick and can be easily done at home. 

Building muscle through strength training has a multitude of benefits, including improved insulin sensitivity, glucose control, and metabolism. Maintaining muscle mass is also important for older adults (especially those living with a chronic condition) as it protects bones and reduces the risk of heart disease

For people with diabetes and other conditions, it’s always a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider before trying a new exercise routine. 

Learn more about exercising well with diabetes here: