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The Relationship Between Cardio and Blood Sugar

Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Published in Fitness

8 min read

November 29, 2021
April 11, 2023
a person holding a heart near the right side of their chest
a person holding a heart near the right side of their chest

Do you prefer brisk walking to bench presses and free weights? Does your exercise routine consist of more aerobic activity than weight training? If so, cardio is likely your favored form of exercise.

And, you’re not alone. The go-to workout for many, cardio is a good form of exercise for everything from targeting your ideal body weight to reducing the risk factors for various conditions, including heart disease and kidney disease. 

What is Cardio Exercise?

Cardio, or cardiovascular exercise, refers to any type of exercise that gets your heart rate elevated and then keeps it elevated for an extended period. Cardio, which is technically an aerobic exercise, is meant to work your respiratory system and keep you breathing deeply and quickly while you work out.

Fun fact: the term ‘aerobic’ actually means ‘with oxygen.' When you elevate your heart rate and breathing, you introduce more oxygen into your bloodstream. Over time, this trains your body to use oxygen more efficiently. 

Of course, any type of exercise can help control blood sugar levels and help with your wellbeing. However, it may be helpful to know your blood sugar goals. Because, while aerobic exercise can help lower blood sugar levels, anaerobic activity may actually cause your blood sugar levels to rise in the moment, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Remember that both types of exercise can help decrease glucose in the long run. So, if you enjoy cardio, it can be an excellent way to optimize your health and focus on glucose control. Here are a few types of cardio you can start with:

people doing different cardio: walking, cycling, running, boxing, swimming, dancing, rowing, hiking and jumping rode

Cardio not only helps control blood sugar levels, but it can also prevent obesity, aid with your weight loss goals, and help with heart health by promoting better blood flow. And its benefits don’t end there.

Like most forms of exercise, it also releases endorphins [mood elevators], supports healthy sleep, prevents high blood pressure, and burns a significant amount of calories. Cardio can be as easy or complex as you make it, which is one of the best parts of this form of exercise. 

Blood Sugar Levels and Exercise

a person walking in the mountains

Did you know that physical activity can be an excellent addition to your diabetes management plan? Even if you don’t have prediabetes, type 1, or type 2 diabetes, being sedentary can be bad for your health. And, when you have diabetes, it can lead to poorer health outcomes and more complications. 

The American Diabetes Association recommends physical activity as part of diabetes care. They suggest breaking up any extended periods of sitting with three minutes or more of light activity every half hour or so. This can help improve blood glucose management for those who have difficulty maintaining healthy blood sugar level ranges. It’s also helpful for those who may struggle with issues like cholesterol and obesity. 

The bottom line is that exercise can be good for your blood sugar maintenance. But once you establish the types of exercise you want to engage in, there are several factors to consider when examining your blood sugar levels in relation to physical activity.

Exercise can affect your blood sugar levels for up to 24 hours after you work out. And, when you exercise, you increase your body’s insulin sensitivity. This happens during and for some time after the activity. Insulin sensitivity is also affected by the time of day.

Generally speaking, your insulin sensitivity decreases as the day goes on. Still, various factors influence this, including some medications. So, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional if you have any questions about it. You may even consider using a CGM for running or other types of exercise to get a better understanding of how your body responds to training.

a person doing elliptical workouts

Depending on your individual needs, planning to engage in physical activity during certain hours of the day may prove to be more effective than others. Because aerobic exercise can help lower blood sugar levels and anaerobic exercise causes your levels to rise, try to plan aerobic exercise when you are less insulin sensitive and anaerobic activity when you are more insulin sensitive.

Good planning and understanding how your body responds to different types of exercise in relation to your blood glucose is key to finding the perfect exercise program for you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise if you can’t find time during the optimal time for your body. It just means that your physical activity can lead to better benefits for things like your metabolic health and your blood sugar levels more during those times.

This may require some trial and error. A great way to experiment with regular exercise, cardio exercises, and strength training to see how your body responds to each one is by using blood glucose monitoring tools like a continuous glucose monitor (CGM).

How Your Diet Affects Your Exercise Routine

veggies fruits, nuts and fish on heart-shaped plate

Before beginning that healthy cardio routine, remember that nutrition is just as important as physical activity. And, it’s equally important to have a healthy diet when you exercise. Your diet is crucial to maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.

Why? Well, maintaining a well-balanced diet is what provides your body with the fuel it needs to function optimally. Balancing your diet is even more critical when you begin to introduce physical activity in the mix. Don’t forget that as you increase the length and intensity of your workouts, it may be necessary to add some calories in and give your body some extra fuel. 

When you introduce exercise that your body isn't used to and you under consume calories and nutrients, this can lead to burnout. Consider working with your existing diet (if you already know what helps your blood sugar levels) or asking a registered dietitian for tips to get a better understanding of your unique needs.

No two bodies are the same, and most people need to work around their bodies instead of molding them to a specific diet plan or type of exercise. This is where using a CGM for fitness can be helpful, as you can gain insight into the way that your diet may be affecting your performance.

Something else to remember is to hydrate. Whether you’re building muscle, using resistance bands, or relaxing with some yoga, your body needs hydration. This is likely not a surprising tip since hydration is key to any healthy lifestyle. Still, it can be easy to become dehydrated during physical activity, especially during a cardio workout when you may be sweating more than you’re used to. 

How to Get Started with Cardio

a person jumping rope

If you’re currently as sedentary as you can get away with, the idea of cardio workouts can be intimidating. But you don’t have to start with burpees and bear crawls! An easy way to start can be with short walks before and/or after meals.

Try riding your bike to the store, or take the stairs instead of the elevator. Even when you’re ready to jump into a more strenuous exercise program, there are still ways to start small. If you’re a beginner to cardio workouts, you can try them on for size by incorporating 20 to 40 minutes of exercise three to four times a week.

You can also try walking or jogging to start with. As it gets easier to do this, add a little intensity to your pace. Don’t forget that this should feel good, and there are a lot of different activities that you can try on for size if it doesn’t. If the first one doesn’t fit, try another! 

As you exercise, pay attention to what your body is telling you. Again, challenge yourself but don’t push your body to the point of pain or true discomfort. If you’re feeling dizzy, short of breath, or experiencing any pain, you should stop the exercise and evaluate your body.

And if you have a chronic condition or disease (anything from a bad back to heart disease counts!), consult a healthcare professional for medical advice related to it. It’s a good idea to do this before you make any diet or lifestyle changes, and especially before beginning a new exercise program to ensure that you can stay safe and healthy through it.

a person running outdoors

Of course, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare professional before incorporating any significant changes in your routine, even if you don’t have a health condition. When it comes to exercise programs, there’s no one-size-fits-all.

Some people may do better with strength training, others with resistance training, and some with light aerobic activity, tai chi, or yoga. The more you know about your body, the easier it will be to find the best fit for you. 

A mixed workout that includes a combination of cardio and weight training can also be a better way to prevent issues like cardiovascular diseases than focusing on just one. Cardio may focus on exercising your heart muscle, but you can combine it with different activities to work out other muscle groups in tandem.

Consider exercises like sprints and swimming, which can build up muscles in your lower body alongside the cardio benefits. Or, add resistance bands to your cardio workouts. Whatever you choose, remember to track and monitor how your body feels so you can find the type of exercise that’s best for your body. 

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Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Reviewed by: Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.

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