Exercise For Diabetes

Efficient Exercise for Glucose Control

Just a few minutes of exercise can have a big effect on the action of insulin that keeps our glucose levels in balance. The trick is to go all out.

While we have known for years that aerobic exercise like walking improves the health of our hearts and helps prevent or control diabetes, it can take a lot of time. Until now, however, we didn’t know if quick bursts of exercise would help.

Recent research now shows that it does. Scientists in Scotland reported their findings in BioMed Central Endocrine Disorders. Just 15 minutes of high-intensity interval training in a two-week period had a “remarkable” effect on the insulin action of the sedentary young men in the study, the researchers wrote.

In this study a group of 16 men who were relatively out of shape but otherwise healthy rode an exercise bike four times daily in 30-second spurts two days a week. After two weeks they had a 23 percent improvement in how effectively their body used insulin to clear glucose from their blood stream.

All of us have enough time for this. As soon as a good friend of mine who leads a busy life learned about this research, she started doing 30-second sprints.

“I just sprint up the gentle slope west of my house for about two blocks,” she told me. “Then, I walk back and I’m done. Can’t beat how efficient it is time-wise. I really like the fact that it’s over so fast that I don’t get at all sweaty, so I can change out of my running duds into my work duds without having to clean up. Saves laundry too!”

Exercise is one of the few tools that we have to quickly bring down our blood glucose levels. The only other one that will work in the short term is to inject insulin. In my first book, What Makes My Blood Glucose Go Up…and Down, which I wrote with Dr. Jennie Brand-Miller and Kaye Foster-Powell, we found plenty of ways to spike our levels, but only these two ways to control them quickly.

My late wife took insulin to control her type 2 diabetes. Sometimes her blood glucose meter showed that her level was above 200 mg/dl. We discovered, however, that a brisk 10-minute walk worked much quicker than insulin to bring her numbers down to a satisfactory range.

The new research shows that even shorter but regular sprints would work even better. The secret is to go just as fast as you can for a few seconds each time.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • Reply Rhonda Dothard September 2, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    I am really sold on the exercising right after a meal. I do about 20 min. on a stationary bike after dinner [in front of the TV]. It helps my glucose reading before bed and in the morning too.

  • Reply Sheila Kohl August 7, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Dear David,

    My situation is like Rhonda’s above. I have been a T2 for a year. I’m definitely not in good shape, but have just incorporated exercise to achieve the glucose levels for which I’m aiming.

    Yesterday I was at 172, did 15 min on my elliptical and dropped it to 122. This morning my glucose was 162, but when I did the same 15 min on the elliptical, it rose to 199! That’s frustrating…

    Do I need to wait a short period of time before checking my glucose after exercise?

    For what it’s worth, I’m challenging myself to handle my diabetes with natural supplements via my holistic chiropractor rather than medications.

    Any insight you may have would be great…

    Thanks much.

    • Reply David Mendosa August 18, 2009 at 7:09 am

      Dear Shiela,

      What a good question about waiting after exercise to check your BG! I have never thought of that before. Please see what the difference is when you check immediately afterword and then perhaps half an hour later — and let us know your results. Do it a couple of times because the results (and the meter accuracy) may vary.

      As to “natural,” my thinking is that the best natural way to control diabetes is with exercise and a very low-carb diet. That’s all that I use.

  • Reply Subodh Mathur June 23, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Dear David, I have had Type 2 for 1 year. My doc told me clearly that a burst of intensive exercise would likely sweep the sugar out of my blood. And it does! I don’t do 30-second sprints. So far, I have done an intensive 15-minutes on the treadmill. How do you define ‘intensive’? It depends on you – whatever makes you work hard. It seems that the muscles need the sugar, and the brain somehow manages to bypass the usual obstacles to absorbing sugar, and lets the muscles soak up the sugar. Even 10 minutes works for me. I may try even the shorter sprints. The point is: Work hard so that the brain goes into ’emergency’ mode, and gets the sugar to the hardworking muscles.


  • Reply Rhonda D June 3, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Dear David,
    Thanks for responding to my question about higher blood sugar levels after exercising. My blood sugar will be much lower than 250. It is usually 130-150 and then 180-200 after exercising. I eat just a small amount prior to exercising, just to keep from getting sick. I usually eat some fruit like strawberries or an apple and some cottage cheese.

    Thank you for any information you can provide, it seems like the Doctors either don’t know or don’t tell, I don’t know which!

    Thanks again,
    Rhonda Dothard

  • Reply David Mendosa May 27, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Dear Rhonda,

    When your blood glucose is high before exercise, it does sometimes rise even more. I certainly don’t know why, and wonder if anyone does. That’s why the common recommendation is not to exercise when your levels are above about 250 mg/ml. So my question for you is what are your numbers before and after exercise?

    Best regards,


  • Reply Rhonda D May 26, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    This article really helped. But my question is why does my blood sugar go up when I exercise. I usually do about 45 min on an ellipticle trainer and sometimes some resistance traiing with weights. My blood sugar will be elevated afterwards. I would like to know why and what I should do.

    Thanks for any help,
    Rhonda D

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