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,
Episode #280

Research has found that when you strength train, the ability to drive glucose into muscle tissue from strength training occurs, and thus your ability to cause a decrease in your glucose threshold, can occur when you lift weights that are at least 30% of your single repetition maximum weight (1RM). This is surprisingly not that heavy or difficult and means you can control blood sugar and upregulate sugar transporters with even lighter body weight exercises. 

Let’s take a closer look at this study. In it, test subjects (both diabetic and non-diabetic overweight middle-aged men with previous resistance exercise experience) were assigned to either a low or a moderate intensity protocol. Both protocols consisted of a weight training circuit of 3 sets of 30 repetitions of six basic weight training exercises that you can find at most gyms: leg extension, bench press, leg press, lat pull down, leg curl, and seated row. Subjects recovered for 15-20 seconds between exercises, and for a full two minutes between circuits. Weights were set at 23% of one repetition maximum (1RM) for the low intensity group, and 43% of 1 RM for the moderate intensity group. Blood sugar and rating of perceived exertion (RPE) were measured both between sets and at 15-minute intervals during a two-hour post-exercise resting period. Subjects also ate a 285-calorie breakfast two hours before the test.

Blood sugar levels in the non-diabetic subjects fell initially during exercise, then rose after exercise as the body released some sugar into the bloodstream to support the exercise (a process known as glycogenolysis), then leveled off again. No surprises there. In subjects with type 2 diabetes, both the low and moderate intensity circuits lowered blood glucose, but surprisingly, the low intensity circuit produced lower glucose levels, along with a lower rating of perceived exertion and less metabolic stress. This finding should be particularly relevant to overweight or untrained individuals who are just beginning a blood sugar management program, because it means that even a single session of low intensity resistance exercise at a relatively easy weight offers significant benefits for blood sugar control.

Now, before leaving the topic of strength training for blood sugar control, it is important to understand that the heavier and more intense your strength training, the more rapidly you will deplete muscle and liver glycogen levels, the higher your post-exercise metabolic rate will be, and the greater your amount of blood sugar control will be, so you eventually should progress to workouts such as a heavy 5x5 protocol or any of the other strength training strategies I describe here. But it’s also important to realize that even light weight training will suffice for basic blood sugar control.

Blood Sugar Control Strategy #2: Pre-Breakfast Fasted Cardio

A study published in The Journal of Physiology suggests a second, potent strategy for controlling blood sugar, especially in response to a meal: exercise before breakfast, particularly in a fasted state.

In this study, researchers in Belgium recruited 28 healthy, active young men and began stuffing them what would be considered a pretty poor diet comprised of 50 percent processed, unhealthy fat (we’re not talking extra virgin olive oil, but more like soy and lard) and 30 percent more calories than the men had been consuming prior to the study. A portion of the men (the control group) did not exercise during the experiment, and rest of the subjects were assigned to one of two exercise groups, working out four times a week in the mornings by running and cycling at a hard intensity for 60-90 minutes.

Now, here’s the kicker: two of the groups—the control group and just one of the exercising groups—were fed a huge, carbohydrate-rich breakfast. In the case of the fed exercising group, this meal occurred before exercising and then they continued to ingest carbohydrates, in the form a sports drink, during their workouts. But the second group worked out without eating and drank only water during the training. The researchers did, however, made up for the abstinence of calories in this second group by matching their energy intake of the first group with a big breakfast later that morning after training, exactly comparable in calories to the other group’s big pre-exercise and during-exercise portions.


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