Going for a walk after a meal can help reduce blood sugar levels, even if it’s just for a few short minutes, new research shows.
The news comes from a meta-analysis, published earlier this year in the journal Sports Medicine, in which researchers analyzed seven different studies to examine how light physical activity like standing and walking affects heart health, including insulin, and blood sugar levels, compared to prolonged periods of sitting.
The findings suggest that going for a light walk after a meal—even for as little as two to five minutes—can improve blood sugar levels, as compared to sitting or laying down after lunch or dinner. Simply standing can also help lower blood sugar levels, but not to the same degree as walking.
“Even light activity could be completed for health benefits,” lead study author Aidan Buffey, MSc, a PhD candidate at the University of Limerick’s Health Research Institute, told Health.
When you eat a meal—particularly one heavy in carbohydrates—it’s normal for your blood sugar levels, or the amount of glucose in your blood, to sometimes spike temporarily. This is known as a postprandial spike.
This spike in blood sugar typically triggers the release of a hormone called insulin, which allows the glucose to leave your bloodstream and enter your cells, where it’s used for energy.
But the balance between blood sugar levels and insulin is a delicate one—and it can swing out of control quickly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if the body consistently has very high spikes in blood sugar—and thus, is routinely pumping out more insulin—cells can eventually stop responding to insulin and become insulin resistant. This break in the balance can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
That’s where this new research comes into play—study authors say that taking a quick walk after meals can help lower blood sugar levels, and potentially reduce the chances of developing cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
The team of researchers from the University of Limerick analyzed seven different studies to examine the effects of sedentary breaks—or interruptions to prolonged sitting—on cardiometabolic health markers, like blood sugar and insulin levels, after eating.
Only two of those studies included people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes; the other five studies did not include any participants with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. In all studies, participants were asked to stand or walk for two to five minutes every 20 to 30 minutes over the course of one day.
The researchers found that both standing and walking were found to lower postprandial glucose levels, compared to sitting. But, according to study authors, “light-intensity walking was found to be a superior intervention.” Light walking was also found to improve insulin levels after a meal.
Ultimately, researchers recommended light-intensity walking to lower blood sugar and insulin levels after a meal.
According to study authors, the contractions in skeletal muscles that occur while walking lead to an increase in glucose uptake—meaning that your working muscles use up the extra glucose in your bloodstream, reducing the need for insulin secretion.
“If you can do physical activity before that glucose peak, typically 60 to 90 minutes [after eating], that is when you’re going to have the benefit of not having the glucose spike,” Buffey told The Times.
While walking after a meal is optimal for blood sugar management, Buffey told Health that it’s a good idea to take short walking breaks throughout the entire day.
“Try to break up your sitting time as often as possible,” Buffey said. “During the working day and evening, if it is possible to stand and walk every 20 to 30 minutes that would be ideal, if not every 45 to 60 minutes or whatever is possible, as any movement will be beneficial.”
Managing blood sugar levels can be helpful in lowering your risk of diabetes. And, it’s vital to manage your blood sugar if you are already living with diabetes, as it can help reduce your odds for various health complications associated with diabetes like vision loss, heart attacks, stroke and kidney disease.
“Managing your blood glucose will help delay or prevent diabetes complications in the future and help you feel more confident about your health,” Laura Hieronymus DNP, RN, vice president of health care programs for the American Diabetes Association, and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Nursing, told Health.
Maintaining blood sugar levels throughout the day can also help boost energy levels, she added.
To keep your blood sugar in check throughout the day, it’s essential to eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight, and partake in regular physical activity, according to the CDC. Other tips include:
- Track blood sugar levels to see when they rise and fall
- Eat regularly throughout the day and don’t skip meals
- Choose water over juice, soda, or alcohol
If you already have diabetes, tracking your blood glucose is especially essential to your health. “If you have diabetes, your blood glucose levels can rise or fall based on many factors,” said Hieronymous. “The amount your levels change can be different from day to day. That is why it is important to track those numbers, so you are able to stay within a healthy range. The longer you are out of a range, the more damage that could cause to other areas of your body, such as the heart, kidneys and eyes.”
You can use two different methods to track your blood sugar levels: a blood glucose meter or a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). The blood glucose meter works by checking your glucose through a small drop of blood that you can get by pricking your finger. And, a CGM is a device that stays attached to your body and provides real-time glucose readings and tracks glucose patterns over time.
“Both options are great ways to help keep track of your blood glucose throughout the day,” said Hieronymous, “[to help you] make sure you are staying within a healthy range so you can avoid or delay any diabetes complications.”
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