17 April 2018Is HIIT Exercise a Good Option for Diabetes?

Is HIIT Exercise a Good Option?

When I talk about high intensity interval training (HIIT) with people, I find that some are already using it as part of their fitness regimen, and others have no idea what I am talking about. Fitness centers have been incorporating it into their classes, and fitness trainers are using it when designing personalized fitness plans. In fact, if you work out, you may be doing a form of HIIT without even realizing it. It has become increasingly popular as a workout option. If you have diabetes or prediabetes, read on to determine if it is a safe and effective fit for you?

What is HIIT?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), HIIT is a type of training that "involves repeated bouts of high intensity effort followed by varied recovery times."


  • Allows a person to perform shorter periods of vigorous exercise instead of longer periods of moderate exercise.
  • Can vary from person to person and according to activity. The intense bursts of physical activity should be tailored to a person's current health and fitness level.
  • Can be applied to walking, running, cycling, swimming or any burst of activity that involves raising the heart rate above 70% maximum heart rate. Active.com, an online community for fitness and community events, has a target heart rate calculator that is very easy to use.
  • Usually involves intense periods ranging from a few seconds to 8 minutes long and recovery periods lasting equally as long, usually at 40-50% maximum heart rate. The total workout could last 7-60 minutes.

Benefits of HIIT

Shorter periods of intense exercise can be a time-saver, appealing to those with busy days. According to the CDC, lack of time is the most commonly reported barrier to regular exercise.

Physical benefits of vigorous exercise when compared to moderate exercise include:

  • Superior heart and blood vessel health
  • Improved blood pressure
  • Improved insulin sensitivity (or less insulin resistance)
  • Better cholesterol levels
  • Decreased abdominal fat and enhanced weight loss

Applying HIIT Exercise

  • The HIIT program should be personalized to your fitness level and physical ability.
  • If you are not currently exercising, consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise routine. You might start a walking program where you increase your pace for 30-60 seconds every few minutes while walking.
  • If you are already active and exercising moderately, you might want to walk or run uphill for 2-15 minutes at a more brisk pace.
  • A physical therapist or certified exercise professional can help you design a HIIT program that is the right fit for you.

HIIT Exercise for Diabetes and Prediabetes

Heart disease is the number one complication of diabetes. This makes HIIT exercise appealing for persons with diabetes and pre-diabetes because vigorous exercise has superior heart health benefits. On the other hand, you need to be smart about following precautions for vigorous exercise, and make sure it is safe for you.

  • If you are not currently exercising, please make sure to get a complete physical exam before starting any exercise program. If you have established diabetes and heart disease, ask your doctor if vigorous exercise is safe for you. Your doctor might order an exercise stress test to determine if it is safe for you to exercise vigorously.
  • If you are on a heart medication, such as a beta blocker that lowers the heart rate, check with your doctor before increasing the intensity of your workout.
  • Do you have physical or medical limitations such as pain, balance issues or decreased range of motion that affect your physical functioning? If so, seek guidance from a physical therapist or certified exercise professional for expert advice to build your fitness routine.
  • If you are taking insulin or insulin-enhancing medications, it is important to monitor your blood glucose levels with vigorous exercise. As exercise becomes more intense, the body relies more on carbohydrates for energy. This can impact your blood glucose levels. Be prepared. Always carrying a quick-acting glucose source (ex: glucose tablets or gels) with you to rescue a low blood glucose.
  • If you have diabetes, tune in to how your blood glucose responds to higher intensity exercise. You may need to ask for advice from your diabetes health care provider.
  • If you have type 1 diabetes, HIIT requires careful planning, knowledge and preparation to adjust your food intake and insulin delivery. Talk to your health care provider about whether HIIT is safe and appropriate for you.

Bottom Line about HIIT and Diabetes

Exercise is a cornerstone of diabetes management and is essential for preventing or delaying the chronic complications of diabetes. Regular exercise (in addition to weight loss) is also the most effective way to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. Exercise science is showing that vigorous exercise often has superior physical benefits to moderate exercise. Applying HIIT exercise for diabetes requires personalizing the plan according to your own fitness level and health history. You can then reap the benefits of vigorous exercise while being mindful of your own health status.


Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes: A Position Statement of the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care. 2016

Brenda L Braslow, MS, RDN, LDN,CDE

Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in Indialantic, Florida

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Diabetes/Health Exercise/Health

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