Everyone knows that exercise is important, but why is that? It's certainly true that exercise is fundamental to building strength and maintaining a healthy weight. However, there is another important reason that many of us overlook—its ability to manage our glucose levels and increase insulin sensitivity.
Exercise plays a pivotal role in glycogen management. Glycogen is our body’s storage form of glucose, it provides our body with an easy-to-access 24-hour energy reserve. Glycogen stores only exist in two places in the body: the skeletal muscle and the liver. While the liver can shuttle glucose throughout the body, the muscle holds on to its own glucose, using it as fuel when the need arises. Exercise allows the body to make use of the stored glycogen in the muscles and increases that muscle's ability to siphon excess glucose from the blood for a period of time after the workout. The eventual increase in muscle mass also translates to increased storage space for glucose. Whereas the liver cannot change much in size, we can certainly increase our muscle mass through repeat exercise.
The second way that exercise helps us manage glucose is by enhancing our cells' sensitivity to the hormone insulin. This translates to less insulin production by the pancreas and an increase in insulin's glucose lowering effects. While traditional exercise recommendations indicate a need for 150 minutes weekly to reap these benefits, research has shown that the intensity of exercise matters just as much as duration.
Research Brief: Short on time? Both diabetics and non-diabetics can reap the benefits of high-intensity exercise (HIE) training. Utilizing training programs of 20 minutes HIE or less, insulin sensitivity has been shown to increase for 1-3 days afterward. In non-diabetics, just 40 minutes of maximal interval running weekly improved blood glucose to the same effect as 150 minutes moderate-intensity exercise weekly. In individuals with type 2 diabetes, a single session of HIE improved post-prandial glucose for 24 hours. Read the full study here.
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