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How Exercise Improves Insulin Sensitivity

What is Insulin Sensitivity?

Insulin is a hormone secreted by your pancreas with its main function being the regulation of nutrients circulating in your bloodstream. While insulin is mostly associated with blood sugar management, it also affects how you metabolize fats and proteins. Whenever you eat food, the cells in your pancreas sense the intake of fuel and release insulin into your blood.

Insulin then travels around your body, telling your cells to pick up sugar from your blood. This process keeps your blood sugar at the appropriate level. Sometimes cells stop responding to insulin correctly which means your pancreas must produce even more insulin to maintain normal blood sugar levels. If your cells may become less sensitive to insulin, this can result in elevated insulin and blood sugar levels. This can eventually lead to damage to your pancreas and decreased insulin production.

Can Insulin Sensitivity Be Improved?

The short answer is yes! There are several steps you can take to improve your insulin sensitivity. Research shows that improving your sleep quality and reducing your stress levels, along with eating a nutritious diet that is high in fruits, veggies and fibre can help your cells respond appropriately to insulin. There are also some natural health products like resveratrol, chromium and magnesium that have been shown to support healthy blood sugar management.  

While sleep, stress management and nutrients are important, the most effective way to improve your insulin sensitivity is through exercise. It helps move sugar into the muscles for storage and promotes an immediate increase in insulin sensitivity, which can last from two to 48 hours, depending on the exercise.1 In one study it was found that 60 minutes of cycling at a moderate pace on a machine increased insulin sensitivity for 48 hours among healthy test subjects.2

Studies have found that resistance training increased insulin sensitivity among men and women with or without diabetes.3 One study of a group of men without diabetes found that when participants performed resistance training over a three-month period, their insulin sensitivity increased, independent of other factors like weight loss.4

Other recent studies provide further evidence to support the theory that regular physical activity reduces the risk of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.5 According to this research, it appears that insulin sensitivity improves when exercise is increased.

Some studies indicate that higher energy expenditures, including HIIT workouts, produce greater improvements to insulin levels. However, aerobic exercise interventions can improve insulin sensitivity without an associated increase in overall fitness. There is some evidence that these exercise-induced benefits to insulin levels may be independent of diet and weight loss.5  

How Does it Work?

During exercise, muscle contraction stimulated improvements in insulin sensitivity are associated with increased fuel sensing enzyme activity which activates glucose transporters and improves glucose uptake into fat and muscle cells. This process can continue for several hours after physical activity has ceased.5

While both aerobic and resistance training increase insulin sensitivity, combining both in your routine appears to be most effective. Brisk walking, swimming and cycling are excellent options for aerobic exercise and these can be combined with weight training or resistance bands. Find physical activities that you enjoy and look for ways to build movement into your day.

Variety is the spice of life so change up your activities if you feel yourself getting bored with your routine. If you’re new to exercise in general, make sure to start slowly and give your body time to adjust. And always speak with your healthcare provider before making major lifestyle changes so you can work together and come up with a plan to achieve the results you’re looking for.

References

  1. Borghouts LB, Keizer HA. Exercise and insulin sensitivity: a review. Int J Sports Med. 2000 Jan;21(1):1-12. doi: 10.1055/s-2000-8847. PMID: 10683091.
  2. Magkos F, Tsekouras Y, Kavouras SA, Mittendorfer B, Sidossis LS. Improved insulin sensitivity after a single bout of exercise is curvilinearly related to exercise energy expenditure. Clin Sci (Lond). 2008 Jan;114(1):59-64. doi: 10.1042/CS20070134. PMID: 17635103.
  3. Way, K. L., Hackett, D. A., Baker, M. K., & Johnson, N. A. (2016). The Effect of Regular Exercise on Insulin Sensitivity in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Diabetes & metabolism journal, 40(4), 253–271. https://doi.org/10.4093/dmj.2016.40.4.253
  4. Hejnová J, Majercík M, Polák J, Richterová B, Crampes F, deGlisezinski I, Stich V. [Effect of dynamic strength training on insulin sensitivity in men with insulin resistance]. Cas Lek Cesk. 2004;143(11):762-5. Czech. PMID: 15628572.
  5. Bird, S. R., & Hawley, J. A. (2017). Update on the effects of physical activity on insulin sensitivity in humans. BMJ open sport & exercise medicine, 2(1), e000143. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000143

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