Tackling Men’s Diabetes with Physical Activity

One Australian is diagnosed with diabetes every five minutes, a staggering statistic that has a huge impact on our community and the health care system. Diabetes is a chronic condition in which a person has high blood sugar, either because the body does not produce enough insulin, or because cells do not respond adequately to the insulin that is produced.

There are two main types of diabetes:

    • Type 1 diabetes, which is characterised by the autoimmune destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
    • Type 2 diabetes, which is the most common form and is characterised by a reduced production of insulin and an inability of the body tissues to respond fully to insulin.


As there is currently no cure for diabetes, the condition requires lifelong management.

Diabetes in Men

In 2017–18, the occurrence of diabetes was higher for males (5.0%) than females (3.8%), with the gap increasing significantly from the age of 45 onwards.

Almost 1 million Australian adults had type 2 diabetes specifically, with it more commonly found in males than females (6.1% and 4.6%, respectively). Men seem more susceptible than women to diabetes due the consequences of sedentary lifestyles and obesity, possibly due to differences in insulin sensitivity and regional fat storage.

Many factors can increase the risk for diabetes and its complications in men, including:

      • smoking
      • being overweight
      • avoiding physical activity
      • having high blood pressure or high cholesterol
      • being older than 45


Diabetes can also cause symptoms in men that are related to sexual health.

Erectile dysfunction:

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is the inability to achieve or maintain an erection. Men with diabetes are at risk for ED. According to a review of 145 research studies, over 50% of men with diabetes experience erectile dysfunction.

Damage to the autonomic nervous system:

Diabetes can harm the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and lead to sexual problems. The ANS controls the widening or constricting of your blood vessels. If the blood vessels and nerves in the penis are injured by diabetes, ED can result.

Retrograde ejaculation:

Men with diabetes can also face retrograde ejaculation. This results in some semen being released into the bladder. Symptoms may include noticeably less semen released during ejaculation.

Urologic issues:

Urologic issues can occur in men with diabetes due to diabetic nerve damage. These include an overactive bladder, an inability to control urination, and urinary tract infections (UTIs).

The benefits of exercise

Exercise and keeping physically fit is a highly effective ways to both prevent the onset of diabetes, as well as manage any current diabetic symptoms.

On top of the wide range of benefits that exercise provides, for men with diabetes, exercise lowers blood glucose levels and boosts the body’s sensitivity to insulin, countering insulin resistance. Exercise also improves cardiorespiratory fitness and strength, which helps insulin work more effectively.

By exercising regularly and managing your blood sugar within your exercise schedule, can allow you to get the full benefits of a workout without feeling shaky, tired, dizzy, or anxious.

Types of exercise recommended

All forms of exercise – aerobic, resistance, or doing both (combined training) – are equally good at lowering HbA1c values (average blood glucose or sugar levels) in men with diabetes. It’s important to remember that although a combination of aerobic and resistance has the best overall effect, there may be modifications to each individual.

Aerobic exercises:


For individuals with diabetes, it is recommended to perform aerobic exercise – this includes walking, cycling, swimming or even dancing – on most days of the week, aiming for 30 minutes each session to improve your cardiorespiratory function.

      • Remember, if you’re just starting out, you may only be able to manage 10 minutes. Aim to gradually progress over a few weeks to reach the goal of 30 minutes continuously.
      • It’s also important to avoid too much walking/running if you have neuropathic symptoms, such as the gradual onset of numbness, prickling or tingling in your feet or hands, or foot ulcers.


Resistance exercises:


Resistance exercises can be performed using your body weight, light hand weights or resistance bands, various machines, and free weights found in a gym setting. Moving your muscles under greater resistance promotes an increase in muscle mass and therefore greater glucose uptake.

      • For people with diabetes, it is recommended to participate in resistance training 2-3 x per week with a range of large, functional muscle groups being used.


The best time to exercise with diabetes

The type of diabetes you have and the medication you may be using should be a consideration when deciding on the best time to exercise. If you’re taking insulin, it’s important to avoid exercise during peak insulin action as this could result in unwanted “lows”. It is also recommended to avoid exercise close to sleeping.

When you eat, your blood glucose levels go up. But remember, research has shown that if you exercise for 10 minutes immediately after eating, your blood glucose levels could be up to 5mmol/L lower than if you just sat on the couch watching TV. This is because exercise has a lasting effect; glucose continues to be removed from the bloodstream by the muscles themselves (from being active) but also, but ongoing training has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.

Remember to see your doctor or accredited exercise professional prior to commencing a new exercise program to ensure your safety. As with all exercise, it’s important to avoid training if you’re unwell or if the weather is extremely hot. Be sure to start at a light intensity and gradually progress with the help of your health professional.

Check out our Men’s Health eBook

This latest eBook by Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) has been designed to encourage Australian men to become more active for their physical and mental health. It also covers the benefits of exercise for a wide range of common conditions adult men may encounter.


Get the right support

See an Accredited Exercise Physiologist: Whether you’re inactive, at risk of diabetes, or have been diagnosed with diabetes, exercise can help. But it’s important to get the right advice. Accredited Exercise Physiologists are specially trained to understand the complexities of this condition and can help you to exercise safely with diabetes. Find one near you!

Visit your GP: Can’t remember the last time you had your blood glucose checked? Now’s the time to make an appointment with your doctor for a blood test, especially if you’re experiencing ED or other potential complications.

If diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor may also refer you to a urologist or endocrinologist to treat the effects of low testosterone, a common result of diabetes in men.

When managing your diabetes, it’s important to complete an annual cycle of care with your GP to identify any health concerns early and discuss the best treatment with your doctor and diabetes health professionals. Your level of physical activity will be reviewed as part of your annual care cycle.

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Written by Elise Edwards, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Credentialed Diabetes Educator at BallyCara