This Is the Best Time of Day to Exercise If You Have Type 2 Diabetes

Key Takeaways

  • According to a new study, adults with type 2 diabetes saw the most improvement in their glucose (blood sugar) levels when they were active in the afternoon—from 1:43 PM to 5:00 PM.
  • Aside from physical activity, experts say that other lifestyle factors (such as sleep and diet) could also contribute to the timing’s blood sugar-lowering effects.
  • If you are looking to increase your physical activity levels at any time of day, experts recommend planning ahead, finding a workout buddy, and choosing activities that you enjoy.

Being physically active is one of the best ways to help manage type 2 diabetes. Not only does it help control your blood sugar levels, but it can also lower your risk of health complications of diabetes, such as heart disease and nerve damage.

According to a new study, the time of day that people with type 2 diabetes work out could affect how well their blood glucose levels are managed.

Adults with type 2 diabetes who were the most active in the afternoon (between 1:43 PM to 5:00 PM) saw the greatest improvement in their blood sugar levels. 

“Our findings highlight the potential of incorporating timing into physical activity interventions,” Jingyi Qian, PhD, an author of the study and instructor of medicine in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told Verywell. “While any amount of physical activity appears beneficial, the timing of the activity is linked to effects on blood glucose management.” 

Here’s what experts say about working out if you have diabetes, including how to pick the right time for exercise and what activities to try.

Why Would Afternoon Exercise Help With Diabetes?

For the study, the researchers looked at physical activity data from more than 2,400 adults with type 2 diabetes and overweight. During the study, all of the participants wore a device that measured and recorded their physical activity. The participants were part of a larger, long-term study called Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes), a randomized clinical study that started in 2001.

“Moderate” physical activity could be a brisk walk or dancing while “vigorous” physical activity could be running or fast bicycling.

The study found that:

  • The participants who did moderate to vigorous physical activity in the afternoon saw the biggest reduction in blood glucose levels after one year.
  • The participants who kept up with a regular afternoon workout schedule maintained lower blood glucose levels.
  • The participants who worked out in the afternoon also had the highest chance of being able to stop taking glucose-lowering diabetes medications.

Roeland Middelbeek, MD, one of the study’s authors from the Joslin Diabetes Center, told Verywell that the research was “the first large-scale epidemiological study demonstrating that timing of unsupervised physical activity is associated with long-term improvement in blood glucose in type 2 diabetes.”

Why Does Exercise Timing Affect Blood Sugar?

According to Qian and Middelbeek, it’s not clear why exercising in the afternoon had the greatest effect on reducing blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes but there are a few theories.

Your Body Clock

Experts who were not involved in the study highlight that the timing of a workout may affect blood sugar levels because of factors like daily variations in hormone levels, circadian rhythms, behavioral patterns, individual responses, and interactions between physical activity and insulin.

During exercise, the body’s muscles use glucose for energy, which leads to a decrease in blood sugar levels. In the study, the benefits of post-meal workouts on blood sugar levels were seen in the people with type 2 diabetes who did afternoon physical activity—so, probably after lunch.

“Generally, exercising at any time of the day can help lower blood sugar levels by increasing insulin sensitivity and facilitating glucose uptake by the muscles,” Melissa Baker, RDN, a certified registered dietitian nutritionist and the founder of Food Queries, told Verywell. “However, exercising after a meal may be particularly beneficial as it can aid in reducing postprandial blood sugar spikes.”

According to Baker, the body’s metabolism also tends to be more efficient in the afternoon, and insulin sensitivity is higher than at other times. Baker also said that physical activity in the afternoon might line up with a natural dip in blood sugar levels that occurs late in the day or early evening. 

What (and When) You Eat

Samar Malaeb, MD, an endocrinologist who focuses on diabetes and weight management at HealthPartners Park Nicollet, told Verywell that another reason why afternoon exercise could affect blood sugar levels is that many people eat their biggest meal for lunch. Being nourished at that time of day gives them energy for an afternoon workout and may also help with blood sugar control.

According to Malaeb, since exercise improves insulin sensitivity, the timing of exercise could have a noticeable effect on blood sugar control—especially in people with type 2 diabetes.

“Our muscles burn glucose during activity, which causes a drop in blood sugar levels,” said Malaeb, “Additionally, the benefits of exercise on blood sugar can last for several hours following the activity, offering a longer period of better blood glucose control.”

Workout Timing and Taking Insulin

If you have type 2 diabetes and take insulin, you’ll need to talk to your healthcare provider about how to time a workout around meals. Whether you work out before or after a meal will depend on your health needs and diabetes management goals.

While these theories could help explain why timing seems to matter for diabetes and exercise, Qian and Middelbeek said that more studies are needed to better understand why an afternoon workout could offer benefits for managing blood sugar levels.

Qian added that while the study “cannot provide specific recommendations,” the researchers do think the results “highlight the importance to understand whether and how optimizing timing for workouts can help manage blood sugar.”

What Else Can Affect Blood Sugar?

The study did have limitations, including that the researchers did not include other factors (like sleep and diet) that may have affected participants’ blood sugar levels.

“Sleep and diet data were missing for this study population,” said Middelbeek, who concluded that “it is still too soon to come to a conclusion on specific recommendations about workout timing.”

Malaeb said that people with diabetes do need to consider these other factors since insulin resistance and glucose control can be affected by sleep loss and poor sleep quality.

“Similar to how meal time and composition can affect blood sugar levels before, during, and after exercise, so can carbohydrate intake,” said Malaeb. “The results of the study should be interpreted in light of these factors.”

How Much Exercise Do I Need If I Have Diabetes?

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that most adults with type 2 diabetes get 150 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity per week, which can be spread throughout the week.

Qian said that shorter durations of less than 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity or interval training might be enough for younger, more physically fit people.

How to Get More Daily Exercise

Whether you work out in the morning, afternoon, or night, Malaeb said that getting regular physical activity has several health benefits, including maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and overall well-being.

Here are some expert tips on how to get more physical activity in your day at whatever time works best for you:

  • Plan ahead. Schedule your workouts for times that you know will work with your schedule and fit in with your daily routine. 
  • Gradually build up your activity levels. No matter what exercise you’re doing, you don’t want to do too much too fast. Make sure that you slowly build up to the routine you want to be doing for the long term. For example, if you want to start running, start by running a half-mile or mile at first, then slowly add more miles to your routine as you get stronger. 
  • Find a workout buddy. You may find that exercising with a friend or partner or joining a group or fitness class helps you stick with it. Working out with someone or exercising in a fitness class can help provide consistency, motivation, and accountability. 
  • Choose activities that you enjoy. Take part in workouts or activities that you like and that you find fun. This will make it easier for you to keep up with the routine and make it a part of your daily life rather than constantly feeling like it’s a chore or something you wish you could avoid.

If you have any questions about how to consistently incorporate physical activity into your daily routine or are looking for personalized advice on exercise planning and blood sugar management, Malaeb recommends speaking with your healthcare provider or a certified diabetes specialist.

What This Means For You

A new study suggested that exercising in the afternoon had the greatest effect on lowering blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. However, experts say that exercising at any time of the day can help you manage type 2 diabetes. Try to get at least 150 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week to get the most health benefits.

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