Exercise & Insulin: Is There a Link?

by Ben Ong
exercise and insulin

Getting a diabetes diagnosis is life changing. You must completely change your diet and lifestyle in order to live a healthy, happy life. One of the first things you will be advised to do is begin exercising regularly. However, in addition to medication, dietary changes, and increased doctor’s visits, starting an exercise program may seem overwhelming. After all, does working out really make that much of a difference in your insulin and blood glucose levels?

The answer is yes! Exercise is directly linked to how your body processes insulin. Let’s take a closer look at what insulin is and how exercise can affect it.

What is Insulin?

exercise and insulin

Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas. It is necessary to control blood glucose levels. When you eat, your body produces insulin to keep your blood glucose levels in a safe range.

However, if you have diabetes, then your body either does not produce insulin or it does not respond properly to insulin. This leads to insulin resistance, which can have dire consequences. Therefore, keeping your body sensitive to insulin is incredibly important.

How Exercise Effects Insulin

exercise and insulin

When you exercise, your muscles use glucose for energy. This is what keeps you going during a difficult exercise session. Insulin helps play a role in this process since it is helps move glucose out of the blood and into muscles for storage. So, when you exercise, your sensitivity to insulin increases because your body needs glucose to work hard. In addition to increasing sensitivity during exercise, your body will also stay more sensitive to insulin after you finish working out! This effect can last from one hour to 24 hours after exercising.

Now that we know there is a link between insulin and exercise, let’s take a look at what exercises are best for those who are prediabetic or diabetic.

Different Types of Exercise

There are three different types of exercises – cardio, resistance, and flexibility.

Cardio is aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping. This is often repetitive exercises like running, walking, swimming, and cycling.

Resistance is strength training that improves your muscles using your own bodyweight, free weights, machines, or resistance bands.

Flexibility improves your ability to stretch and helps stop falls. These types of exercises include yoga and tai chi. Some exercises combine both cardio and resistance exercises, like HIIT (high intensity interval training).

exercise and insulin

The best exercises for those with diabetes are cardio and resistance training. When you perform aerobic activities, you not only improve your heart health, but also increase insulin sensitivity as you force your muscles to move faster to keep your heart rate up.

Resistance training is important because it will keep you from losing muscle mass as you age, but it also increases insulin sensitivity since your muscles need fuel to lift weights or do bodyweight work.

How to Get Started Exercising

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that everyone with diabetes and prediabetes regularly exercises to help increase insulin sensitivity, as well as improve overall health. Those with diabetes should do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. They also recommend that you go no longer than two days in a row without exercising.

exercise and insulin

A daily 20 minute walk is a great way to get started on a regular exercise program. As you become more physically fit, you can add in different activities that are more difficult. You may find that you enjoy going to the gym!

If you are younger or have been cleared by a doctor, then you can engage in more vigorous exercise routines, like HIIT. If you choose to do those activities, then the minimum is 75 minutes per week.

Always make sure you are cleared by your doctor before you start exercising and do not overdo it when you first start. You should always eat before and after exercise and check your blood sugar as you get used to your new exercise routine.   

Final Thoughts…

You may be tempted to skip exercising as you adjust to your diagnosis of diabetes. However, exercise plays a huge role in keeping you healthy, especially when it comes to helping your body react to insulin. The more sensitive your body is to insulin, the better. Fortunately, you can begin exercising no matter how out of shape you may feel.

Simple exercises like walking and cycling are a great start. Adding in strength training by doing body weight moves like squats, planks, push-ups, and lunges is also a great idea. This will get your body stronger while also decreasing insulin resistance. Remember to start at your fitness level and work your way up. If you exercise regularly, you will start seeing improvements in your health and how you feel in a few weeks!