Whether your goal is to prevent diabetes, to reverse prediabetes or simply to better manage your blood sugar if you have diabetes, nothing is more important than regular physical exercise.

Even if you’re healthy now and your weight is normal, the exercise habit helps keep you out of the danger zone by boosting your metabolic rate, making it easier to prevent weight gain. Staying active enhances insulin sensitivity, helps regulate blood sugar, keeps blood pressure down and reduces triglyceride levels…helping to prevent “metabolic syndrome,” that cluster of risk factors that greatly increases your risk of developing prediabetes and eventually type 2 diabetes. Here’s how much: People who average 30 minutes of aerobic activity five times a week (150 minutes weekly) have a 26% reduced risk of developing diabetes.  Those who average an hour five times a week (300 minutes) have a 36% reduced risk.

If you have prediabetes or diabetes, the benefits are just as impressive. For people with prediabetes, strength training reduces blood sugar for the next 24 hours. For people with type 2 diabetes, exercise is as powerful as medication—a 10-minute walk after dinner drops blood sugar by 12%, and 30 minutes of aerobic activity five times a week reduces A1c, a measure of long-term blood sugar levels. You’ll also reduce your risk for heart disease. Whatever your status, making your heart vigorously pump freshly oxygenated blood throughout your body also will raise your spirits, sharpen your brain and provide you with a healthier future.

That’s why it’s so important to set yourself up for exercise success—and avoid the pitfalls that can sap motivation or lead to injury. Here, from exercise physiologist Richard Cotton, MA, ACSM-CEP, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine, are four secrets to anti-diabetes exercise success.

One note of caution: If you’re a once-upon-a-time athlete or you’ve always led a sedentary life, see your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. If you have high blood pressure or other medical concerns, your doctor may recommend a treadmill stress test before you get started. Once you’re cleared for takeoff…

START SLOW—HERE’S HOW

Pushing yourself too far too fast will backfire. It’s a recipe for injury. If you’ve been pretty sedentary, chances are you’ve lost muscle and tendon toughness. So, even if you can push yourself to walk briskly for an hour, your tendons and muscles will say, ‘Hey, we’re not ready for this!’ Then you’ll find yourself benched. Instead of walking a mile or two your first day out and seeing what happens, walk a quarter mile each day for the first few days. Then increase to half a mile, then three quarters, and then a mile, over 10 days.

Tip: Become more active throughout the day. That 10-minute walk after each meal? It’s more effective at reducing blood sugar than one 30-minute walk after one meal. Every 90 minutes or so, stand up and stretch, march in place, or take the stairs for a three-minute climb. It’s great for blood sugar regulation.

STEP IT UP

You started slow, perhaps with a walking routine, but now it’s time to increase the intensity over time. When you can walk comfortably for 30 minutes, try interval training…

  • Start walking at your normal speed, then pick out a point some distance down the road (not too far!) and walk briskly to it.
  • Slow your pace for a few minutes, then try it again.

Tip: Push yourself a little but not to the point that you couldn’t continue. As soon as it becomes uncomfortable, slow down. (For more walking tips, see Bottom Line’s article, “Do You Walk Wrong? 7 Mistakes That Can Sabotage Your Walking Workout.”)

The ultimate goal is to get to at least 150 minutes a week of aerobic activity (walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, taking an aerobics class). Indeed, diabetes prevention benefits keep rising the more you exercise. But the key to preventing exercise injury is gradual progression.

GET STRONG

Preserving and building muscle mass helps you keep your metabolism fired up, burns more calories and helps reduce blood sugar, blood pressure, and triglycerides. Aim for strength-building exercise two times a week in addition to aerobic activity.

Tip: Skip the heavy weights and low reps. It’s not Olympic weight lifting. Instead, go for lighter weights that allow you to do 15 reps that almost seem too easy. It’s a safer approach compared to lifting heavier weights, yet research shows that it is just as effective—and a lot more comfortable. As you get stronger, you can increase the weights, but it should always feel easy to do 15 reps.

Try weight machines, experiment with resistance bands—even everyday objects like cans of food or bottles of water can get you going. Calisthenics such as sit ups, squats, lunges, wall-sits and planks and even heavy gardening can also do the trick.

CREATE A SUPPORT SYSTEM

Study after study shows that when you have support you are more likely to stick to your exercise regimen. And support can come in many forms. Using a fitness tracking device or a pedometer to track your activity will help you focus on meeting your goals. Keeping an exercise journal is also effective— write out your weekly goals and then enter daily what you have achieved.

Tip: If you have a calendar that’s out where other people can see it, stick a gold star—seriously, it works—on the calendar every day you do aerobic activities and a silver star for strength training.

The most effective way to sustain any exercise routine? Studies show it’s lining up a workout buddy—or buddies. So find a pal to walk with or join a walking, biking, running or swimming group that offers companionship and support and fuels incentive. (Yes, there’s an app for that—Workoutbuddies.)

What about a personal trainer? It’s a great idea—and you don’t have to break the bank to make it happen. Here’s what to do: Buy a package of 10 sessions. Jump start your routine by working with your trainer twice a week for the first two weeks. That’s four visits. Now go to once a week for two weeks—and once a month for the next four months. That’ll be enough to keep you motivated to work out on your own.

One final note: If you have diabetes and especially if you are taking insulin or certain other medications, you may be concerned that a new exercise program could lead to low-blood-sugar episodes. For most people with diabetes, it doesn’t happen—and when it does, it’s generally easily handled. Find out how in the Bottom Line article, “Got Diabetes? Don’t Let Exercise Mess with Your Blood Sugar.”