7 Lifestyle Changes for Type 2 Diabetes

Making certain lifestyle changes can help you achieve type 2 diabetes remission — even without medication.

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by
April Benshosan
— Signos
Health Writer
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Reviewed by

April Benshosan
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
March 6, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Diabetes medications aren't a quick fix. If you live with type 2 diabetes — about 1 in 10 Americans do, according to the CDC — there's a good chance your doctor has recommended you make a few lifestyle changes along with tracking your blood glucose levels and taking your meds.1

So, even if you're taking your medications regularly and have your diabetes under control, it's still important to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. In fact, taking on certain lifestyle changes can help you reverse your diabetes — even without medication.

If you're looking to sweep the unhealthy habits out of your life to better manage your diabetes, read on for the lifestyle interventions that can help you get there.

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Common Causes of Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes mellitus is a common metabolic disorder characterized by issues with insulin, a hormone made in your pancreas that regulates blood sugar. In people without diabetes, insulin actively moves glucose (or sugar) from food into the body's cells to use as energy. But when you have type 2 diabetes, your body doesn't do such a great job at transporting that insulin, so your blood ends up getting saturated with sugar, causing your blood glucose levels to rise.

There are many different causes of type 2 diabetes. While genetics plays a role — yes, people with a family history of diabetes are at a higher risk of developing the condition — lifestyle factors are also to blame. Eating a diet high in sugary and processed foods and living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to obesity and insulin resistance, both of which are major contributors to the development of type 2 diabetes. 

Insulin resistance, a common cause of type 2 diabetes, is a condition where cells become less responsive to insulin and prompt the pancreas to produce more insulin to compensate. Over time, this can cause the pancreas to become overburdened with the increased need for insulin production, leading to high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and eventually prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. The risk of type 2 diabetes also increases with age — your risk starts rising as young as 35.2

The Importance of Lifestyle Changes to Manage Type 2 Diabetes

While you have no control over your age and genetics, you do have a say in your lifestyle. Engaging in more physical activity and maintaining a nutritious diet low in sugar can help control and manage type 2 diabetes.

After all, insulin resistance and being overweight are two common risk factors of T2D, and they can both be prevented, managed, or even "cured" by living a healthier lifestyle. Dropping those extra pounds of body fat can help your body use insulin more effectively. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong> <a href="can-you-reverse-diabetes">Can You Reverse Type 2 Diabetes? What The Research Says</a>.</p>

Living Healthy With Diabetes: 7 Lifestyle Changes, Explained

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Optimizing your diet and exercise routine and losing weight (if you need to) might help you completely reverse your type 2 diabetes. Even if you're not able to achieve remission through these lifestyle changes, you'll likely notice improvements in your blood sugar levels and can work with your healthcare team to take fewer medications or lower your dosage. Better-managed blood sugar levels can also help prevent diabetes complications, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney disease, down the line. 

Lifestyle changes may include but are not limited to:

1. Exercise Regularly

We're not advising you to sign up for the next half marathon. Simply moving more and engaging in regular physical activity can seriously improve your blood sugar levels. Exercise can help you lose body fat, but it also helps optimize your body on a cellular level. When you exercise, your muscles turn to glucose for energy, which helps to lower blood sugar levels. Regular exercise also helps to increase insulin sensitivity, allowing your cells to more effectively respond to insulin and use the glucose in the bloodstream. 

Experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or vigorous aerobic exercise per week spread out over at least three days during the week. Make sure to take a rest day after two consecutive days of exercise. In addition, aim to strength train two to three times a week.3

2. Making Dietary Changes

Reducing Simple Carbs

Carbohydrates turn into sugar in your body, so you'll want to make sure to limit the amount of carbs you eat and focus on whole-food, complex carbs rich in fiber. Simple carbs digest quicker than complex carbs, so they can send your blood glucose soaring. Make sure to reduce your intake of foods high in simple carbs, including white bread, white pasta, white rice, pastries and baked goods, and sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and fruit juice. When you're eating carbs, prioritize whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and oats. 

Reducing Saturated Fat 

Eating too much saturated fat is linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance as well as high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat is present mostly in fatty animal products such as meats and dairy, but it's also found in certain plant oils such as palm oil and coconut oil. To help better manage your diabetes, choose lean meats and low-fat dairy, and opt for vegan proteins such as legumes, as much as possible.4

Reducing Calories

If you're overweight or obese, eating a lower-calorie diet can help you lose the extra body fat. Try reducing your portion sizes and focusing on whole foods high in protein and fiber, two nutrients that will keep you fuller for longer. But don't reduce your calories too low — it's recommended to stay above 1,200 calories per day for women and 1,500 calories per day for men. If you're not sure where to start with your diet, consider working with a dietitian to build a healthy meal plan that you'll realistically stick with.5

3. Managing Your Stress Levels

Stress causes the body to release certain hormones, including glucocorticoids and catecholamines, which can cause high blood glucose levels. In the short term, this stress response is completely normal and isn't serious. However, chronic stress can cause hyperglycemia over the long run, potentially leading to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Managing your stress levels can spell out better diabetes management—and mental health.6

4. Prioritizing Your Sleep Routine

Research consistently shows that not getting enough quality sleep night after night can lead to glucose intolerance and a higher diabetes risk. And if you already have prediabetes or diabetes, poor sleep will worsen the condition. To get quality shut-eye every night, make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, speak to your diabetes care team about potential natural solutions (like certain supplements, such as magnesium and L-theanine) before turning to medications. 

5. Losing Weight

If you're overweight or obese, losing even a modest amount of body fat can help you better regulate your glucose levels. Research shows that losing at least 5 percent of your body weight can improve your blood sugar levels, including fasting glucose and hemoglobin A1c. Eating a nutritious diet consistently and regularly exercising can help you lose weight and maintain that weight loss in the long term.7

6. Quitting Smoking

Smoking is one of the worst habits to pick up, whether or not you live with diabetes. But it's especially bad for diabetics because nicotine messes with how your body responds to insulin and increases blood sugar levels. What's more, the harmful chemicals in cigarettes cause inflammation and make cells stop responding to insulin.8

7. Drinking Less Alcohol 

Cutting back on alcohol is always a good idea. Many alcoholic drinks, such as cocktails, wine, and beer, contain carbs and need to be accounted for; and drinking less can help you reduce your calorie intake, which can lead to weight loss. If you're having an occasional drink, make sure to eat a snack or meal along with it to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

If you're on diabetes medications, working with your diabetes care team to pick the proper drugs can help manage your condition, help with weight loss, and improve your overall well-being. If you're not on meds, it's that much more important to make lifestyle changes to improve your blood sugar levels and get them in a healthy range. A continuous glucose monitor (CGM) like Signos can clue you into how certain lifestyle modifications (like changing your diet and adding cardio workouts to your week) affect your personal glucose levels. To learn more about how to manage your diabetes, check out Signos’ blog.

Find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="foods-to-avoid-with-type-2-diabetes">Foods to Avoid with Type 2 Diabetes: A Comprehensive Deep Dive</a>.</p>

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About the author

April is a writer, editor, and content strategist with a Master’s degree in Publishing.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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