World Diabetes Day | Exercise With Diabetes

Written by Jack Boardman

Glucagon And Insulin During Exercise

Glucagon and insulin are hormones that help balance your blood sugar (glucose) levels. Glucose is essential for exercise and is one of the many fuels you need from food and supplements so that your energy is at an effective level for your workout goals.

But why are glucagon and insulin so important and what role do they play when we exercise?

The carbs you eat are broken down into glucose. Insulin transports glucose from the blood to your cells to store for the energy you need in order to exercise.

running tips

Insulin and glucagon counterbalance one another to regulate your blood sugar levels. The production of insulin suppresses glucagon. Picture a see-saw with both working either end to stay level. So when you consume food, fuelling up for your workout or match before, during and after, your body will release insulin to lower the blood sugar and then, between fuelling, will release glucagon to re-balance your blood sugar levels.

Think yin and yang. For people with diabetes, this harmony is off-kilter. A diabetic’s body either can’t produce enough insulin or can’t make it, causing the see-saw to be imbalanced as the blood sugar levels can reach problematic levels.

Type 1 diabetes means that your immune system destroys the cells in your pancreas that make insulin and so a type 1 diabetic needs to take insulin to live. Type 2 diabetics’ cells don’t respond to insulin, causing blood sugar levels to rise. Type 2 diabetes, however, can be controlled with medication, weight loss in cases of obesity and changes to diet and lifestyle – this is where the right nutrition and exercise comes in.

During exercise your insulin levels drop and the pancreas’ release of glucagon causes the liver to produce more glucose. In order to maintain constant blood sugar levels, your insulin levels drop to balance out the insulin0like effect of your contracting muscles. This is so that your muscles can take in the glucose (energy) that they need to function.


For type 2 diabetics, insulin levels in the blood can drop dramatically while the glucagon levels rise. The balance is therefore thrown off as insulin is needed in the body. Injecting insulin along with muscle contractions would mean that the muscles take too much glucose from the blood – in other words, your blood sugar levels are too low, leaving you feint and without energy. The answer is balancing the insulin and glucagon levels.

When exercising with diabetes, you should check your blood sugar levels before, during and after a high intensity workout. A sudden drop in blood sugar could result in hypoglycaemia.

Running Tips

Whereas the right energy and nutrition is essential for all physical exercise, diabetics should take extra precautions when planning what fuel to take to the gym or a match. Keep sugary carbs on your person in the event your blood sugar levels drop. For your locker, store fresh fruit, sweets and milk as well as protein. Your post-workout intake is important to balance your glucagon and insulin levels so make sure that you replenish your energy reserves immediately after working out and aim to eat a proper meal within the hour, bearing in mind that high intensity training will leave your heart pumping and your body using up its energy reserves after the workout has finished.

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Faye Reid

Faye Reid

Writer and expert

Faye Reid has a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Exercise Physiology and a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition. Faye has worked with numerous high-profile oranisations, such as Men's Health, Sky Sports, Huddersfield Giants, Warrington Wolves, British Dressage and GB Rowing, providing her expert sports science support. Find out more about Faye's experience here: She puts her passion into practice as goal attack for her netball team, and in competitive event riding.

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