Can You Prevent Diabetes With Diet and Exercise?

Mom and adult daughter after a yoga class.

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With diabetes mellitus—commonly known as “diabetes”—blood sugar or glucose levels are elevated because the body doesn’t use insulin correctly. Instead of properly applying sugar in the cells for energy, glucose can build in the bloodstream, resulting in diabetes.

A diabetes diagnosis can lead to significant health consequences, including damage to the heart, kidneys, nerves, and feet. While there are some diabetes risk factors that can't be controlled, maintaining an active lifestyle and eating nutritious foods can go a long way to helping prevent this disease.

What You Need to Know About Diabetes

Healthcare professionals diagnose several types of diabetes, the most common being type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Other types include gestational diabetes, and cystic fibrosis-related diabetes. Sometimes diabetes may be induced by drugs or medications.

Approximately one in 10 people in the U.S. have diabetes according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Roughly one in five don’t know they have this disease, which makes testing vital, especially if you notice any of the following symptoms:

If you have any of the above symptoms, contact a health care professional right away for testing.

Type 1 Diabetes

Nearly 1.6 million Americans have type 1 diabetes according to the American Diabetes Association. This type of diabetes is an autoimmune disease and generally begins in childhood or young adulthood, although it can appear at any age.

Causes of type 1 diabetes include genetics, viruses, and sometimes unexplained reasons resulting in the body's immune system destroying the cells on the pancreas that produces insulin. A blood test can determine if you have type 1 diabetes. If you do, insulin treatment will be required.

Type 1 diabetes isn't a grave diagnosis. Equipment used to measure and insert insulin into the body has continued to evolve over the years. This allows people with type 1 to maintain better control over blood sugar levels than they could in the past.

Type 1 diabetes does not have a cure, but there is hope. For instance, the Diabetes Research Institute is working toward a biological cure, which would help the body start producing its own insulin and restore blood sugar levels to normal ranges.

Type 2 Diabetes

More than 95% of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. In type 2,  a combination of things occur. Your fat, liver, and muscle cells don't respond to insulin correctly. As a result of this poor response, your pancreas begins to produce more insulin to compensate. Eventually it begins to burn out. As that happens, insufficient insulin is available, leading to the build up of sugar in the bloodstream.

The most common demographic for a type 2 diabetes diagnosis is people over 45 years of age. Type 2 is also more prevalent in people who are overweight, have a family history of this disease, or have high blood pressure.

Type 2 diabetes can often be managed with diet, exercise, and—in some cases—prescription medication. Some diabetes medications are taken orally, in the form of a pill, while others are injected under the skin.

One way to see if you have diabetes is to do a blood test to measure your HbA1c levels. A test result of 6.5% and above may be a sign that you have diabetes. It is recommended that people who are diagnosed with diabetes have an HbA1c of less than 7%. People with pre-diabetes will have an HbA1c range between 5.7% and 6.4%.


Approximately one in three adults has prediabetes, a precursor to diabetes. Prediabetes exists when blood sugar levels are higher than what they should be but aren’t quite high enough for a full diabetes diagnosis.

It is recommended that you contact a healthcare professional to test your blood sugar levels, which they can do via a fasting blood sugar or glucose tolerance test, if you:

  • Have a family history of diabetes
  • Have a medical condition, such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, or high cholesterol
  • Don't engage in physical activity at the levels recommended by your healthcare provider

Prediabetes can lead to type 2 diabetes if it goes untreated, but making healthy lifestyle changes can hinder its advancement. An HbA1c between 5.7% and 6.5% indicates that you have prediabetes.

Factors Contributing to Diabetes

In addition to age, family history, the presence of certain medical conditions, or having a sedentary lifestyle, there are a few other factors that can contribute to diabetes.

Cortisol and the Stress Response

When we get stressed, our body naturally releases cortisol. Cortisol helps give the body the energy it needs to deal with the stressor by decreasing insulin sensitivity, resulting in more glucose availability. While this is helpful in life or death situations, it isn't so beneficial when stress is long-term.

If cortisol levels continue to stay high over time, glucose is constantly being produced. This keeps blood sugar levels elevated as well, increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Weight Cycling and Insulin Resistance

Weight cycling, or repeatedly losing and gaining weight, can also contribute to diabetes development. Studies have found that people who lose weight, then relapse and gain the weight back have reduced insulin sensitivity when compared to people who keep the weight off.

Sometimes, instead of becoming less sensitive to insulin, the body quits responding to this hormone altogether. This is called insulin resistance and causes the pancreas to keep making insulin to the point where it can't keep up, allowing blood sugar levels to rise—and opening the door to diabetes.

Social-Environmental Factors

The environment in which you live and work can also increase your risk of diabetes. Pollutants in the water and soil, malnutrition, and exposure to certain chemicals have all been connected to this disease.

These types of factors could put some demographics at higher risk of diabetes. This includes those living in underdeveloped countries, as well as those in more developed areas but don't have access to nutrient-dense foods or are subject to high levels of pollution.

Prevention of Diabetes Through Diet and Exercise

You can’t prevent type 1 diabetes with diet and exercise; in fact, you can’t prevent this type at all. This autoimmune disease involves your body attacking itself and no amount of work on your part will stave it off. Type 2 diabetes, however, is a different story.

While some causes of type 2 diabetes are outside your control (such as age and family history), you may be able to deter a diagnosis of this disease through preventative techniques that incorporate an active lifestyle, healthy food choices, and weight management.


Regular physical activity can lower your blood sugar levels, a key aspect of diabetes prevention. According to the American Heart Association, most people should aim for 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week.

Before beginning a new exercise program or increasing intensity, speak with a healthcare professional to learn what is safe for your current fitness level. If you're new to exercise, start slowly and build up to 30 minutes. Here are some exercises to consider.


Scientists from the Walking Behavior Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge suggest that, based on the research, we could potentially prevent type 2 diabetes if we just “walk more, sit less, and exercise.”

Specifically, they recommend that adults strive to get at least 7,500 steps per day. Of these, a minimum of 3,000 steps (representing about 30 minutes) should be taken at a rate of at least 100 steps per minute. Using a pedometer can help track your progress.


One study found that, after doing yoga for eight weeks, subjects with elevated fasting blood glucose levels lost more weight and reduced their waist size more than subjects who walked. Thus, researchers concluded that yoga offers promise for decreasing type 2 diabetes risk.

Another piece of research adds that community-based yoga interventions have had positive effects on individuals' glycemic parameters, oxidative stress levels, weight loss results, and lipid levels—all of which can help prevent type 2 or prediabetes.


According to the CDC, swimming is a moderate-intensity physical activity that, in addition to working large muscles, increasing heart rate, and causing you to breathe harder, can also make the body more sensitive to insulin.

Research confirms the positive impact swimming has on insulin sensitivity and glucose control, especially when following a low-volume high-intensity swim training program.

Strength Training

One study of 32,000 men found that engaging in resistance training for 2.5 hours or more per week reduced type 2 diabetes risk by 34%. That's in addition to the other benefits of strength training, such as increased muscle, stronger bones, greater flexibility, better balance, and easier weight control.

The American Diabetes Association reports that three types of strength training can help with glucose management:


Following a nutritious diet can help decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes and prediabetes. These tips can help you create healthy eating habits.

Follow a Mediterranean Diet

A 2020 study on the Mediterranean diet found that this way of eating can reduce blood sugar levels by as much as 0.53 percentage units and that each component of the Mediterranean diet could be involved in a 20% reduction in diabetes risk.

A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, lean protein, and healthy fats. It is also low in processed foods, added sugars, and refined grains. Aim for a rainbow of food colors on your plate.

Consume Less Sugar

Though it was originally thought that consuming a lot of sugar led directly to diabetes, many healthcare agencies now call this a "myth," citing that research has failed to make this connection. Still, too much sugar can increase weight, which does raise your diabetes risk.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day for women and nine teaspoons a day for men. Reading ingredient labels can help you identify added sugar in food.

Get Your Micronutrients

Deficiencies in vitamin D, chromium, biotin, and thiamine have all been linked to glucose or insulin-related issues and low iron levels during pregnancy have been associated with gestational diabetes. So, getting enough of these micronutrients may help reduce your diabetes risk.

If you're not sure if deficiency is an issue, a blood test can help. Also, some diet apps keep a running tally of micronutrients consumed daily. This provides a better view of your overall intake, as well as identifying any areas where your diet may be lacking.

Drink More Water (And Less Soda)

Even though sugar intake has not been connected to an increased risk of diabetes, there has been a connection between one particular beverage and higher diabetes prevalence: soda. It isn't necessarily the soda itself, but more so a sign that your diet may not be as healthy as it could be.

One way to reduce the amount of soda you drink is to increase your water intake. Drinking enough water is not only important for your overall health, but it may also encourage you to drink fewer sugary beverages.

Limit Your Alcohol Intake

In a study promoted by Harvard Health, researchers found that middle-aged men actually reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes with one or two daily servings of beer or wine. Yet, heavy drinkers and binge drinkers have an increased diabetes risk.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that men consume no more than two alcoholic beverages a day and women limit their alcohol intake to no more than one. It adds that some people shouldn't drink at all, such as pregnant women.

Weight Management

Managing bodyweight is an important component of keeping type 2 diabetes at bay. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases suggests that, if you are overweight, losing 5% to 7% of your weight may help prevent or delay diabetes.

Extra weight may not only put you at risk for type 2 diabetes, but also can put you at risk for high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and cardiovascular disease.

A Word from Verywell

If you are concerned about diabetes, speak with a healthcare provider to evaluate your lifestyle and decide on valuable measures you can take to delay or prevent a type 2 diabetes or prediabetes diagnosis.

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By Jennifer Purdie, M.Ed, CPT
Jennifer Purdie, M.Ed, is a certified personal trainer, freelance writer, and author of "Growth Mindset for Athletes, Coaches and Trainers."