Improve insulin sensitivity with these exercise tips
Insulin plays an essential role in the body, from facilitating the movement of sugar (glucose) into the cells, to promoting muscle synthesis, to stimulating the growth of new cells. However, like most things in life, we want just the right amount.
Although it’s essential, too much insulin results in fat continually being stored. Too much insulin is associated with insulin resistance, being less metabolically healthy, many diseases and makes it harder to lose weight.
Movement and exercise are potent tools for increasing insulin sensitivity – independent of weight loss. Check out 10 tips to improve insulin sensitivity for tips that are non-movement based. In this article I outline some of my exercise tips to improve insulin sensitivity.
Standing up and moving throughout the day improves insulin levels (1). Excessive sitting time is associated with reduced insulin sensitivity and independent of exercise levels, sitting around is a risk factor for poor health (1). In fact, television viewing or sitting is associated with increased mortality and type 2 diabetes (2).
Tip: set your timer to get up every 50 mins. When you get up, walk/run up and down the stairs a few times, do 20 press-ups/star jumps/burpees, or just move your body!
Lift heavy things
Weight training improves insulin sensitivity by non-insulin dependent glucose uptake as well as insulin dependent uptake. In order for glucose to move from the bloodstream into the muscles, there needs to be a transporter to facilitate this – insulin enables this. However, muscular contractions also enables this, without the use of insulin – hence one of the reasons exercise is so amazing (3)! Also, by lifting some weights you increase your fat free mass. Increasing muscle mass is beneficial in many ways – increased metabolic rate, increased life span and enhanced insulin sensitivity (4).
Tip: body weight exercises count, so start with some push ups and chin ups. Invest in some dumbbells/kettlebells and start doing some weighted lunges, squats etc. Check out YouTube or an App for guidance.
Sprinting depletes carbohydrate stores (glycogen) in muscles. It’s a super time-efficient mode of exercise that gets many of the same metabolic adaptations gained from regular endurance exercise (increased aerobic capacities and healthier cells with improved defence systems) as well as increased insulin sensitivity (5,6). It’s great for optimising the blood glucose response (6).
Tip: if time is sparse, why not intersperse a few sprints into your week? Over a 12-week period, just 10 mins of exercise (3 x 20 second all out sprints, separated by 3 mins low intensity cycling) improved insulin sensitivity to the same extent as 3 sessions of 50 mins per week at a moderate intensity (7). Next time you go on your walk, why not get in 3 x 20 second sprints? Do these three times a week and you’ll be well on your way!
If walking is more your thing, then that works too! Daily walking significantly improves insulin sensitivity (8). Also, there are so many additional benefits to walking – from an opportunity to think, be in nature, become present, be mindful, or listen to a podcast.
Tip: introduce a daily walking habit. Start with a 30 min daily walk. If you can’t fit in 30 mins at once, split it up into two sessions to break up your day. Doing it post meals is especially associated with improving blood glucose levels, blood pressure and weight loss.
High intensity intervals
Similar to sprinting, it’s optimal for glycogen depletion and improving insulin sensitivity. Unlike sprinting which is more “all-out”, you’re looking at maybe a 1:1 ratio of work to rest of 60 seconds. For those at risk of type 2 diabetes it’s shown to be particularly effective at improving insulin sensitivity, with 10 lots of 60 seconds work and recovery, three times per week showing significant reductions in insulin resistance (9).
Tip: cycling and running work but also fully body movements such as squats, mountain climbers, push-ups, box jumps, burpees are also great. You can drain glycogen even quicker by reducing your rest!
Simply changing the time that you exercise can massively enhance the effects of training. Train in a fasted state, to enhance the insulin sensitivity effects of training even more (10).
Tip: begin the day with a daily walk and some fresh air. Or take yourself through some yoga salutations. Not only is it great for insulin sensitivity but an optimal way to begin the day stress free.
Stay active and exercising throughout life
Endurance athletes, aged 20-80 years old and sprinters aged 20-90 years old were significantly more insulin sensitive than individuals who did not exercise (11). In sprint trained athletes, their insulin sensitivity did not reduce as they aged! (11).
Tip: find something you love and you’ll be more likely to stick with it. And don’t worry if your passion changes as you get older, the most important thing is to keep moving, keep training and have fun!
Incorporate a range of exercise and the more the better
Physical activity that encompasses a wide range of intensity and volume is best for reducing insulin resistance (12).
Tip: include low level exercise such as walking daily, 2-3 sessions of weight training a week and a couple of sessions of HIIT/sprinting for the ultimate mix of exercise for insulin sensitivity. The body thrives on a bit of variety!
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- Duvivier et al. (2013). Minimal intensity physical activity (standing and walking) of longer duration improves insulin action and plasma lipids more than shorter periods of moderate to vigorous exercise (cycling) in sedentary subjects when energy expenditure is comparable
- Proper et al. (2011). Sedentary behaviours and health outcomes among adults.
- Ishii et al. (1998). Resistance training improves insulin sensitivity in NIDDM subjects without altering maximal oxygen uptake.
- Poehlman et al. (2000). Effects of resistance training and endurance training on insulin sensitivity in nonobese, young women: a controlled randomised trial
- Babraj et al. (20090. Extremely short duration high intensity interval training substantially improves insulin action in young healthy males.
- Richards et al. (2010). Short-term sprint interval training increases insulin sensitivity in healthy adults but does not affect the thermogenic responses to beta adrenergic stimulation
- Gillen et al. (2016). Twelve weeks of sprint interval training improves indices of cardiometabolic health similar to traditional endurance training despite a five-fold lower exercise volume and time commitment
- Audelin et al. (2010). Changes of energy expenditure from physical activity is the most powerful determinant of improved insulin sensitivity in overweight patients with coronary artery disease participating in an intensive lifestyle modification program
- Aguiar de Matos et al. (2018). High-intensity interval training improves markers of oxidative metabolism in skeletal muscle of individuals with obesity and insulin resistance.
- Van Proeyen et al. (2010). Training in the fasted state improves glucose tolerance during fat-rich diet.
- Kusy et al. (2013). Insulin sensitivity and beta cell function estimated by HOmA2 model in sprint-trained athletes aged 20-90 years vs endurance runners and untrained participants
- Houmard et al. (2004). Effect of the volume and intensity of exercise training on insulin sensitivity.