4 Ways to Control Blood Sugar With Exercise: Part 1

Learn four ways to control your blood sugar, get rid of stubborn carbohydrate related body fat and reduce your risk of diabetes with exercise.

Ben Greenfield
8-minute read
Episode #280

In last week’s episode, I mentioned that one strategy I use to avoid “getting fat” or experiencing big spikes in blood sugar from a meal is to do some basic strength training with a dumbbell prior to eating, which can activate specific sugar transporters responsible for taking up carbohydrate into muscle tissue.

This is actually a very important topic since not only are type 2 diabetes rates rising, both in the United States and globally, but so are a host of other chronic disease and weight issues directly related to high blood sugar. Characterized by insulin resistance and chronic high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia), type 2 diabetes can lead to both neural and metabolic dysfunction, and is also a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

When blood sugar is chronically elevated, the insulin released by the pancreas becomes progressively less effective in bringing those blood sugar levels down, and ultimately, pancreatic tissues begin to suffer damage (although some evidence shows this pancreatic damage can be reversed with specific lifestyle and food strategies). Although blood sugar can slightly rise in response to factors such as stress, hard exercise, or long periods of sedentary time, blood sugar typically rises most significantly after a meal, and studies show that these post-meal or “post-prandial” hyperglycemic spikes are the most likely to lead to vascular complications, even when compared to elevated fasting glucose levels. 

When it comes to controlling high blood sugar, your body has two choices: get rid of the blood sugar as potential energy via uptake into muscles, or store the blood sugar in fat tissue. So in this two-part article, you’re going to get four ways to control your blood sugar without it simply getting partitioned into fat tissue, you’re going to learn how to get rid of stubborn carbohydrate related body fat, and even reduce your risk of diabetes based on the latest medical research on exercise and blood sugar. I should begin by clarifying the fact that I am not a physician and this is not to be interpreted as medical advice. Please talk to a licensed medical professional about any chronic disease or health conditions related to high blood sugar!

How Sugar Gets Into Muscles

Before discovering why certain movements and exercise strategies can lower or stabilize your blood sugar, it’s important to understand how sugar gets transported into muscle in the first place (you can dig into the science in this research article).

The entry of glucose into muscle cells is achieved primarily via what is called a “carrier-mediated system,” which consists of small protein transport molecules. One of these transport molecules is “GLUT-1” and is normally found in the sarcolemmal membrane (a sheath that surrounds your muscle fibers). It is also thought to be involved in glucose transport under basic resting, non-active conditions.

When the hormone insulin gets released by your pancreas, which is something that can happen after a large meal of protein or carbohydrates, glucose transport can be accelerated even more because insulin upregulates the activity and the number of yet another sugar transporter called “GLUT-4”, which, just like GLUT-1, is found in skeletal muscle. It's also found in cardiac muscle and in adipose tissue, and helps GLUT-1 transporters get even more sugar and storage carbohydrate into these areas. So think of it this way: insulin causes fat cells and muscle cells to soak up energy, and if your muscle cells are already “full,” which is often the case without the strategies you’re about to learn in this article, then most of the energy winds up getting converted and driven into fat cells.

But here’s the amazing thing: exercise can upregulate GLUT-4 transporters just like insulin can, without the actual release of insulin from the pancreas. This means fewer chronic disease risks related to constant surges of insulin, and a higher likelihood that carbohydrate and protein energy from food gets partitioned into skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle rather than into adipose tissue. Exercise can even increase not just the activity, but also the number of GLUT-4 transporters you have available! Of course, as you probably already know, physical activity can do much more than just play around with your sugar transporters, and can also mobilize fatty acids from your adipose tissue to be used as energy, increase your sensitivity to insulin when it does get released, and cause a host of other extremely helpful metabolic adaptations that make it one of the most powerful “drugs” on the face of the planet.

So, let’s look at for highly effective ways to maximize these blood-sugar controlling benefits of exercise:

Blood Sugar Control Strategy #1: Strength Train 

Before diving into strength training, it’s important to understand the concept of “glucose threshold”. What the glucose threshold is is the point at which sugar output and uptake are in balance: if you are above the threshold, then glucose levels rise and you have high blood sugar, and if you are below the threshold, your blood sugar levels fall or stay the same. You can read more about glucose threshold and blood sugar levels in this study.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.