The role of exercise for diabetes

16 February 2023

Exercise, when supervised by an Exercise Physiologist, can play a key role in managing diabetes, as well as improving overall physical and mental health.

Diabetes (or diabetes mellitus) is a condition where the body can’t make enough insulin and/or is not effective at using the insulin it produces due to the blood having too much glucose.

High blood glucose levels can result in long term health complications involving the heart, kidney, and eye and foot damage.

The two most common types of diabetes are:

  • Type 1 diabetes. This is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. This type is not linked to modifiable lifestyle factors and is lifelong.
  • Type 2 diabetes. This is linked to modifiable lifestyle factors and is where the body becomes resistant to the normal effects of insulin and can lose the capacity in the pancreas to produce insulin.

Veterans living with diabetes

For males aged 18 years and over who are current and ex-serving Defence Force personnel, 14% are likely to have diabetes, compared to 6.9% of the non-serving population (1).

While there is limited research with the female serving population, we do know that the prevalence of conditions that may be related to diabetes for females who have served is greater than those who have not served.

The good news is that changes to diet and physical activity can have a positive impact to both types of diabetes in preventing or delaying the condition.

The benefits of exercise

Exercise is beneficial for diabetics due to its ability to make your body more sensitive to insulin.

Physical activity helps control blood sugar levels and lowers your risk of associated conditions (heart disease, nerve damage, etc.).

Types of exercises that can be beneficial for those with diabetes include muscle strengthening exercises at least twice a week, focusing on large muscle groups such as back, legs, and chest.

It’s also important to engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all days of the week. Some simple exercise options include walking, cycling and swimming.

Tips for diabetics from an exercise physiologist 

  • Monitor your blood glucose levels before, during and after an exercise session, at least while your levels are not stable.
  • Ensure you have the appropriate nutrition to treat any hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar level) you may have before exercising.
  • Seek advice from an Exercise Physiologist before increasing your physical activity.
  • The ideal blood sugar level for exercising safely is 5-10mmol/L.
  • If your blood sugar level is greater than 15mmol/L, postpone strenuous exercise as this is considered hyperglycaemia and exercising above this can lead to production of ketones for people with type 1 diabetes.

Support at Mates4Mates

In May, Mates4Mates will be offering its brand-new Diabetes Management Program for diabetic veterans and family members in South East Queensland and North Queensland.

The program will include exercise and dietary education, assessment and prescription with an exercise physiologist and will aim to provide veterans and family members with the skills to self-manage their diabetes effectively with health interventions.

Expressions of interest for this program will open in mid-March.

Mates4Mates exercise physiologists also provide one-on-one appointments for veterans and family members, as well as a range of group exercise classes which can be beneficial for those living with diabetes, as well as other health conditions.

If you’re a veteran or family member and would like to find out more about how a Mates4Mates exercise physiologist can support your physical and mental health, reach out to us on 1300 4 MATES (62 837) for a confidential chat.


Written by Aric Visentin, Mates4Mates Exercise Physiologist


1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2023). Health of veterans.

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