Strength training is one of the best things you can do for your health.
It builds muscle, helps maintain a healthy weight, supports bone health, and reduces the risk of several diseases including osteoporosis 1. In my experience, it makes you feel good too — I feel strong, healthy, and a sense of accomplishment after strength training.
It’s also one of the best lifestyle choices you can make to help manage type 2 diabetes.
If you’re living with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes you may already be aware of the benefits of aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, cycling, or swimming, for blood sugar control and maintaining better overall health. A lot of exercise advice for type 2 diabetes has focused on this type of activity, so many believe this is the best exercise for diabetes.
Now, scientific research is suggesting that another form of exercise for type 2 diabetes can significantly impact your ability to manage the condition.
An effective resistance training routine, also called strength or weight training, can be a powerful strategy in managing and potentially preventing this prevalent condition.
What is Resistance Training?
Resistance training, also known as strength or weight training, involves challenging your muscles to work against a force. Whether it's a dumbbell, a resistance band, or the weight of your body, the goal is the same: to enhance your strength, endurance, and muscle mass through consistent, deliberate exercise.
How Does Strength Training Help Diabetes?
Strength training might seem far removed from blood sugar control, but they're more connected than many think.
The hallmark features of diabetes are the body's inability to process glucose and use insulin efficiently, causing a build up of glucose in the bloodstream. Research shows that strength training can help both of these issues in various ways. Let’s take a look.
Strength Training Lowers Blood Sugar Levels
During strength training for diabetes, your muscles contract and work harder. These contractions stimulate a mechanism in your muscles that allows them to take up glucose from your bloodstream, independent of insulin 2. This is crucial as it provides an alternative route for glucose uptake when insulin function is impaired, such as in the case of insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.
In one study, published in the journal Diabetes, researchers took 10 participants with type 2 diabetes, and trained one leg through strength exercises for just 30 minutes, three times a week, for six weeks, while the other leg remained untrained. The results showed that the trained leg was both better at using insulin and taking up sugar from the bloodstream, mainly due to muscle contraction and an increase in activity by key proteins 3.
It’s worth noting that any type of physical activity can help to lower blood sugar, but strength training can be particularly helpful because it uses more muscles, improving blood sugar metabolism.
Strength Training Improves Insulin Response
Resistance training can also improve insulin sensitivity. This helps glucose uptake into cells, from the bloodstream, via the insulin response.
A study published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences found that 16 weeks of strength training in older adults with type 2 diabetes improved muscle quality and whole-body insulin sensitivity, meaning they got better at effectively taking up glucose in response to insulin 4.
In another study, researchers worked with 28 young men who were overweight or obese and lived inactive lifestyles. Over the course of 12 weeks, the participants embarked on a resistance training program that included three sessions per week. The results were promising – the men saw improvements in insulin sensitivity and better functioning of their beta cells, the cells responsible for insulin production. they also experienced an increase in strength and lean body mass, which represents healthy muscle growth 5.
There are many other pathways in the muscle that improve as a result of strength training to improve blood sugar and type 2 diabetes control 6.
More Room for Glucose Storage
Your muscles are very important in the uptake of glucose, so important that they’re responsible for 80% of the glucose taken out of the blood after eating a meal 2.
Therefore, our muscle tissue is a major site for storing glucose in the body, and getting it out of the bloodstream.
Why does this matter for strength training?
When we engage in more strength training, it contributes to an increase in muscle mass. Essentially, the more muscle you have, the more room there is for glucose storage, which ultimately helps to lower blood glucose levels.
Supports Healthy Weight Loss
When it comes to managing diabetes, one important benefit of strength training that can't be overlooked is its role in healthy weight loss.
Engaging in regular resistance training can help build lean muscle mass and lower body fat 7. Muscle, being metabolically active, burns more calories than fat, even while at rest. This means that the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn throughout the day, supporting weight loss or maintenance. Losing excess weight, particularly around the midsection, is known to improve blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, thus playing a key role in managing diabetes 8.
Also, by boosting your muscle strength through strength training, you're improving your overall fitness, which makes staying active and managing your weight a whole lot easier
This is another of the crucial benefits of strength training in diabetes control. As such, incorporating strength training into your routine is a smart strategy for those looking to manage their diabetes through healthy weight loss.
What strength training should you do for type 2 diabetes?
According to a 2016 position statement by the American Diabetes Association (ADA), adults with type 2 diabetes should engage in strength training for diabetes at least two or three times per week. This is one of the recommended exercises for diabetes at home, complementing 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise.
Strength training can be conveniently performed either at home or in a gym setting, depending on your comfort and available resources. There are numerous exercises that can be included in your routine using different forms of resistance: weights (like dumbbells or kettlebells), resistance bands, or your own body weight.
Here are some strength-training exercises for diabetes at home particularly beneficial those who may be new to strength training for diabetes:
Bicep curls and overhead presses are great exercises to start with as they target the large muscle groups in your upper body, which helps in efficient glucose utilization
Resistance Band Training
Rows and squats with a resistance band work both your upper and lower body muscles. These exercises are versatile and can be adjusted to match your fitness level. These are some of the best exercises for diabetes that can be performed at home.
Push-ups and tricep dips are excellent bodyweight exercises to incorporate. Push-ups can be modified for beginners by resting your knees on the ground. Tricep dips can be performed using a sturdy chair or bench.
Squats and lunges are two effective leg exercises that target large muscle groups. They can be done effectively with or without weights, depending on your fitness level. These exercises help enhance your body's ability to manage blood sugar levels effectively.
Planks and bird-dogs are simple yet effective exercises for strengthening your core. A strong core can improve overall strength and balance, enhancing your ability to perform other exercises safely.
Remember, the keys to effective strength training are consistency and progression. Start with what you can handle and gradually increase the resistance, repetitions, or sets as your strength improves. You can follow tutorials by trained professionals for free on Youtube and may consider working with a certified personal trainer or physical therapist, particularly in the initial stages, to ensure that you're performing these exercises correctly and safely.
Research suggests that the best exercise for diabetes is that which combines aerobic exercise and strength training into a routine, which may improve blood sugar levels more than strength training or aerobic exercise alone 9.
The Bottom line
In summary, resistance training or weight lifting for diabetes is not just about physical strength and toned muscles; it's an effective way to improve blood glucose control and increase insulin sensitivity, playing a key role in managing diabetes with physical activity. It’s a useful strategy for managing and potentially preventing type 2 diabetes with exercise.
So, let's embrace the strength of science and make resistance training an integral part of our exercise regimen! Remember, every rep counts in the battle against diabetes.
Please note that this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical advice. Always seek the advice of a health professional if you are looking to start a new exercise routine when living with diabetes or another health condition.
If you’re looking for guidance on how you can manage, and even potentially reverse, type 2 diabetes by making changes to your everyday lifestyle, our Lifestyle Medicine physicians can help. Book an appointment to find out how.
3. Holten, M. K. et al. Strength Training Increases Insulin-Mediated Glucose Uptake, GLUT4 Content, and Insulin Signaling in Skeletal Muscle in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes 53, 294–305 (2004).
6. Pesta, D. H., Goncalves, R. L. S., Madiraju, A. K., Strasser, B. & Sparks, L. M. Resistance training to improve type 2 diabetes: working toward a prescription for the future. Nutr. Metab. 14, 24 (2017).
7. Qadir, R., Sculthorpe, N. F., Todd, T. & Brown, E. C. Effectiveness of Resistance Training and Associated Program Characteristics in Patients at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med. - Open 7, 38 (2021).