What’s the Best Exercise for Blood Sugar?

02 Aug 2022

As the name implies, prediabetes is a kind of metabolic purgatory. It means you have chronically elevated blood sugar, and you’re on the road to type 2 diabetes if you don’t bring it under control.
And type 2: About 11.2 million Nigerians live with it every day. That means 1 out of every 17 adults in Nigeria have problems processing glucose out of their bloodstream.
If that sounds dire, well, it is. Odds are you’re caught up in that web because so many Nigerian adults are. Fortunately, there’s a proven way to avoid the whole mess.
Exercise is the simplest, cheapest, and most accessible preventive/management medicine you can take.
The more you move, and the more often you do it, the better your body gets at controlling the flow of glucose into and out of your bloodstream.
All it takes to understand it is four quick, easy lessons
Lesson 1: Blood Sugar Basics
A healthy 150-pound adult has just one teaspoon of sugar – 4 grams – swirling around in their blood at any given time.
That fact is incredible, considering how much sugar the average adult consumes in a day (17 teaspoons) and how important that minuscule supply is to our survival (the brain takes up 60% of it).
So where does it all go?
Your body uses some for energy. Your muscles and liver store some in the form of glycogen. Anything left over is converted to fat.
It works in reverse when you go a few hours between meals. Your body keeps your blood levels steady by taking some of that glycogen out of your muscles and liver, changing it back to glucose, and returning it to your bloodstream.
Meanwhile, your body mostly uses fat for fuel while you’re at rest, which helps preserve that stored glycogen for when you really need it: during exercise.
That’s why physical activity is such a key element in controlling blood sugar. Now, the first question many people have is: “What exercise should I do?” Another way of asking, “What’s the best exercise for managing my blood sugar?”
The quick answer is: Any movement is positive. The longer answer is: Different types of exercise help you control blood sugar in different ways. Same with different intensities within each category.
And we’ll get into all that. But let’s start with a simpler question: What’s the least amount of exercise you can do and still get a measurable benefit?
Lesson 2: A Little Movement Can Go a Long Way
Exercise also has a profound effect on your body’s response to insulin, the hormone most responsible for controlling blood sugar. Insulin sensitivity remains elevated up to 72 hours after exercise.
A 2016 study found that walking 11 miles a week was enough to prevent prediabetes from becoming full-blown type 2 diabetes. If you walk at a moderate pace (4 mph), you can cover 11 miles in just under 3 hours. That’s 30 minutes a day, 5 to 6 days a week.
While a little exercise is good, more is better. A long-running study on preventing type 2 diabetes found that the more exercise participants did, the lower their risk.
But at some point, “do more” stops being a realistic option. Even if you can tolerate the repetition, you eventually run out of hours in the day.
Fortunately, there’s another option, one that helps you control blood sugar in a fraction of the time.
Lesson 3: Harder Work Brings Faster Results
You can find any number of ways to do (high-intensity interval training) HIIT workouts. For example, after a short warmup, you could go really hard on a stationary bike for 30 seconds, recover at a slower pace for 60 seconds, and repeat several times. In just 10 minutes, you can get a pretty good workout.
And you don’t even have to go hard. Interval walking – moving faster, then slower offers more fitness benefits than simply striding along at your normal pace.
HIIT helps you manage blood sugar in two important ways:
1. It offers meaningful reductions in less time.
A 2012 study, showed that a single HIIT workout improved post-meal glucose response among people with type 2 diabetes.
The same holds true over time. When analysing haemoglobin A1c (average blood sugar levels over the past 3 months), high-intensity intervals reduced blood sugar at least as well as traditional cardio, but with much shorter workouts.
As a bonus, among people with type 2 diabetes, HIIT may be better at reducing body weight and body fat.
2. HIIT uses more muscle fibres.
When you do cardio at a steady pace, you’re mostly using the smaller, slow-twitch muscle fibres. But when you go hard and fast, you’re also recruiting the bigger, fast-twitch fibres.
Using more total muscle mass means you use more total energy, much of which comes from the glycogen stored in those muscles. Your muscles then pull glucose from your blood to replace the glycogen.
Over time, your muscles increase the amount of glycogen they hold in reserve, even though the muscles don’t necessarily increase in size.
But what if you did build bigger muscles?
Lesson 4: Lifting Gives You Room to Grow
Some people don’t lift weights to look better. They do it to create more space to store carbs (Dietary carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and other sugars during digestion. The glycogen in your muscles and liver is the storage form of those carbs.)
While it takes time to build bigger muscles, the process offers benefits right away.
Strength training, like any other type of exercise, will sensitize your muscles to insulin. That means your muscles will be primed to pull more glucose out of your bloodstream in the hours after your workout.
With months of consistent lifting, people with type 2 diabetes will typically increase muscle size and strength, improve blood pressure and insulin sensitivity, and add bone mineral density, all by about 10% to 15%.
But there’s no need to limit yourself to one form of exercise. In the long run, all of them have benefits, the advice is to get a mix of all of it.
Your weekly mix might include two workouts combining strength training and HIIT, and two longer cardio sessions. Or you could walk 5 or 6 days a week, but on 2 or 3 of those days vary your walking speed between a faster and slower pace.
For blood sugar management, a little exercise is always better than no exercise. More exercise brings more benefits. But consistent exercise is best of all.

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