Exercise and Blood Sugar: What’s the Connection

Michaela Shoberg, M.S.ExerciseWP
Preventive Medicine

It is estimated that 50 percent of the population has a genetic predisposition to developing diabetes and that approximately 25 percent of the population has diabetes or a pre-diabetic condition.  Experts agree that pairing exercise  with a controlled diet is the best way to prevent, manage and reverse this prevalent and serious disease.  We, for the most part, understand that exercise plays a role in controlling blood sugar, but many may not know why this is.  Understanding why we need to do something can encourage compliance, so here is a brief summary of why exercise matters.

First and maybe the easiest factor to understand is body weight.  One of the biggest contributors to diabetes is an increase in body weight, specifically body fat.  Exercise burns calories and an increase in muscle mass increases resting metabolic rate.  Both can help lower body weight when combined with a prudent diet.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Diabetes involves an increase in blood sugar typically caused by impaired insulin production (insulin removes sugar from the blood) or more commonly, a blockage of the insulin receptors on the cells.  An increased body fat percentage is a big reason why those insulin receptors get blocked.  Therefore, lowering the body fat or staying lean, keeps the insulin receptors functioning properly.

A second major reason why exercise is important in the prevention and control of diabetes is related to sensitivity of insulin receptors.  Even without a change in weight, regular exercise increases the sensitivity of the receptors.  When the receptors are sensitive, less insulin causes a greater reduction in blood sugar.  When less insulin is needed, the circulating insulin levels can lower (important in preventing a host of other diseases) and the pancreas doesn’t have to overproduce insulin which helps it stay healthy longer.

Also important in controlling blood sugar through exercise is the fact that muscles can use sugar directly from the blood stream without relying on the insulin response.  This lowers blood sugar in the short term, but also lessens the need for insulin and can help protect the insulin response system for the long run.  A walk after dinner can be hugely beneficial, especially if your sugar levels are borderline.

Exercise is also important in warding off other diseases that can complicate diabetes including hypertension, hyperlipidemia and heart disease.

So who should use exercise to control blood sugar?  Anyone who has a personal history of elevated blood sugar, a family history of diabetes, or who doesn’t like the one to two odds that diabetes is lurking.

*It should be noted that if you are diabetic, it is important to monitor your blood sugar levels carefully during and immediately after exercise as blood sugar can drop dramatically with exercise.



  1. NS Pierce, “Diabetes and Exercise” Br J Sports Med 1999;33:161-172doi:10.1136/bjsm.33.3.161
  2. Erik A. Richter, Lawrence P. Garetto, Michael N. Goodman, and Neil B. Ruderman. “Muscle Glucose Metabolism following Exercise in the Rat: Increased Sensitivity to InsulinJ Clin Invest. 1982 April; 69(4): 785–793
  3. American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes — 2012. Diabetes Care. 2012 Jan;35 Suppl 1:S11-63.

About the Author:

Michaela is a graduate from the Master’s program in Exercise Physiology at San Francisco State University. She graduated suma cum laude and received the Distinguished Academic Achievement award for her thesis work on cycling economy. While at San Francisco State University, she taught undergraduate physical activity courses including aerobics and strength training and assisted with undergraduate research projects. Michaela is classically trained in ballet and other dance forms and has spent many years as a professional dancer.

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