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Diabetes, Pregnancy and Exercise

Learn how exercise may help you manage your diabetes during pregnancy.

image of woman's lower legs in sneakers, walking away

You’re pregnant? Congratulations! The next several months will be a busy, exciting time. You’ll want to shop for supplies, get the nursery ready and baby-proof the house. But if you have diabetes, it’s crucial that you manage the disease carefully — for your health and the health of your baby.

Is exercise during pregnancy safe?

Exercise can be an important part of your pregnancy. Many forms of exercise are not only safe, they’re highly recommended. Exercise can help stave off some pregnancy-related issues such as leg cramps, varicose veins and constipation. It can also help keep your blood glucose levels normal.

But while you’re pregnant, it’s essential you monitor your blood glucose levels as advised by your doctor or diabetes team. Glucose (sugar) passes from the mother to the baby. Early in pregnancy, too much glucose can cause miscarriage or birth defects. Proper exercise and diet may help keep glucose from going too high. It can also help with weight control. It's important to work with your doctor, so you know what your target blood glucose should be. Your doctor can also help with any medication adjustments you may need to make when exercising.

If you’re just starting out with an exercise routine, talk to your doctor first. If you exercised before you became pregnant, you can usually keep on doing it. But your doctor may recommend you reduce the pace slightly or make a change to your activities. Discuss the type of exercise that’s right for you and any precautions you should take. Your permission and restrictions may change over the course of the pregnancy. Make sure to discuss activity at each doctor appointment throughout the pregnancy. If you have health issues such as high blood pressure, heart problems, or eye or nerve damage, talk to your doctor about the risks of exercising.

What types of exercises are safe?

Doctors urge most healthy pregnant women who participated in an exercise program before pregnancy to continue to get moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming and stationary bike. For women who do not have complications, guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day for most, if not all, days of the week.

Activities to avoid during pregnancy include:

  • Vigorous activity such as running.
  • Those that put you in danger of falling or hurting your abdomen, like contact sports and skiing.
  • Exercises you do while lying on your stomach. Also, exercises that are done on your back should be avoided after the first trimester.
  • Activities with bouncing or jolting, like high-impact aerobics or horseback riding.
  • Scuba diving.
  • Any activity in hot and humid weather, so you don’t get overheated.

What precautions should I take?

During pregnancy, and especially if you take insulin, exercise may cause you to get low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. It can come on during the activity, just after or even up to a day later. Low blood sugar can make you feel weak, shaky, confused, tired or hungry. You may sweat or get a headache. If it goes too low, you could pass out.

But there are ways of helping to prevent hypoglycemia. They include:

  • Check your blood glucose before you exercise. If it is below 100, have a small snack.
  • Bring snacks with you if you are exercising away from home.
  • Don’t skip meals before exercising.
  • If you take insulin, ask your doctor if there is a time of day that is best for exercising.
  • Work out a plan with your doctor about what to do if you have a low blood sugar reaction.

Exercising when your blood sugar level is too high can also be dangerous. Ask your doctor about a blood sugar upper limit that would prohibit you from exercising. Avoid exercise if you have an elevated blood sugar accompanied either by ketones in your urine or blood or accompanied by feeling unwell.

Other tips for exercising during pregnancy:

  • Be sure to stay well-hydrated during exercise. Dehydration can affect your blood sugar levels.
  • Wear cotton socks and comfortable athletic shoes.
  • Inspect your feet for sores or blisters after you work out.
  • Know what to do for blood sugars that are too high or too low.

Finally, check your glucose level after you exercise as directed by your physician to see how the activity has affected it.

Keep moving

In addition to helping with your diabetes control, exercise may help reduce backaches, constipation, bloating and swelling. It can boost your energy, lighten your mood and get your body in better shape for labor.

If you don’t have diabetes, exercise may help prevent or treat gestational diabetes.

For most women, being pregnant shouldn’t keep you from exercising. Depending on your health, your doctor can recommend an exercise plan that is right for you — and your baby.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Your Pregnancy and Childbirth. 6th ed. Washington, DC: ACOG; 2010. Accessed: June 23, 2016.
American Diabetes Association. Prenatal care (exercise). Accessed: June 23, 2016.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. What I need to know about physical activity and diabetes. Accessed: June 23, 2016.

Last Updated: June 24, 2016