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Is There A Type Of Exercise That’s Best For Improving Insulin Sensitivity?

Although all exercise is beneficial for improving your health, is there one form of exercise that trumps all others in helping to stabilize blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity?

Based on the latest research, it appears the answer may be yes. In today’s post I want to discuss what the research is showing and share with you my opinion based on personal experience.

Before we dive right in I want to be perfectly clear with a few things up front. When I find a particular methodology with fitness training, nutrition strategy, etc, to provide a positive result and promote it for doing so, it doesn’t mean everything else is worthless or that I’m implying there’s only one solution.

I want to clarify this to avoid the senseless debate that sometimes occurs. There are a lot of people, so called “experts” included, that have very rigid positions on matters involving diet, nutrition, fitness training, etc.

A lot of times this is obviously done to sell products or services and I get that. The people who follow these “camps” take on the ideology and fervently defend that their way is best.  This stuff is no different in a lot of ways than other subjects people frequently debate over.

If you find something that really worked well for you, better than strategies X, Y, and Z, I could see how you’d want to share the good news with others. I’m all about that as you could help someone else who was previously stuck.

People interested in the same subject may read something you wrote or hear you speak and be intrigued to learn more. From there they can see for themselves how it works in their unique situation. The problem arises when an alternative position gets bashed or unfairly taken out of context by someone just because they have a strong belief that their way is best.

Now let’s not get it twisted, there are still truths and untruths in any subject. I could go around promoting that eating a diet of 80% whole grains is best for fixing insulin resistance but I’d just be wrong!

As someone who’s been obsessed with studying fitness and nutrition research for over twenty years, I can tell you an open mind is essential. At the same time there are some universal truths you’ll find.

I look for credible research on humans (not mice or other animals) and then mirror it off real world experience. This is the only way I know to provide sound guidance and coaching. Looking at research alone (without real world experience) and forming hardline opinions is just as foolish as ignoring the research altogether.

Alright, on to the subject of insulin sensitivity and whether or not there is a form of exercise that works best to improve it.

Truth be told just about any exercise will help improve insulin sensitivity because even the lowest intensity exercise will reduce inflammation…

You may have heard me discuss the fact that inflammation is really the root cause behind most health problems, insulin resistance included. There are lifestyle choices that lead to imbalances in the body but ultimately it’s the resulting inflammation and cellular degeneration that trigger a downward spiral with the endocrine system.

Contrary to some people’s claims, low intensity/impact exercise like yoga and others can be very beneficial with improving insulin sensitivity even though there’s little cardiorespiratory work being done.

Any exercise that improves oxygen delivery, works the neuromuscular system, and helps move lymph fluid will be beneficial. Something as simple as bouncing on a mini-trampoline would be beneficial and could work for individuals with physical limitations.

Having said that, there appears to be one form of exercise that could optimize improvements with insulin sensitivity…

What is it?

Interval training and/or the resistance training variety I refer to as burst training.

What’s interesting is the latest research reveals some things about this type of training we didn’t previously know.

The main problem with interval training has always been getting the client or individual to work at a high enough intensity. Interval training involves short bursts of all-out effort (anywhere from 10-60 seconds) followed by a brief recovery period.

The real benefit is derived when the central nervous system is put under an overload stimulus with all-out effort. In short, interval training done “lolly-gagging” or “going through the motions” doesn’t do much.

You’d be better off doing a longer duration session of steady state aerobic exercise than a moderate intensity interval training session. This creates some dilemmas in the real world. For starters, not everyone is willing to work that hard and really push themselves.

Make no mistakes about it, doing interval training the right way is going to kick your butt…it’s hard. The pay off and returns are great but it’s never going to be pitched as an “easy” solution.

To do intervals the right way would also require the exerciser to only attempt them 2-3 times per week max. Anything more than this and either over-training would occur or the workouts wouldn’t be hard enough in the first place.

So for everyone who pitches interval training as the single “holy grail” of fat loss or fitness, I’m going to call you out on this. Do I promote it as being a highly effective means of exercising for fat loss and improvements in health across the board? Yes, absolutely…read my articles and you’ll see I’m a big advocate. However, it’s not something that would work very well all by itself day in and day out.

High intensity interval or burst training COMBINED with other forms of low-moderate intensity aerobic exercise is another story. You’ve got to have recovery and balance in general.

What caught my attention in this recent research involving interval training (published in the Journal Of Physiology, 2012 Jan) was the level of intensity of used.

Exercisers were separated into groups where they completed short 60 second cycling intervals repeated 10 times for a 20 minute total workout.  The two groups included one with sedentary but generally healthy middle age adults, and the other with individuals of a similar age but who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.

The intervals for the second group (the one with individuals who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease) were modified so the participants would only go to about 90 percent of their maximum heart rate during effort phases.

After several weeks on the program, both groups showed significant improvements in their health and fitness. Most remarkably though, the cardiac patients showed “significant improvements” in both heart and blood vessel functioning.

Contrary to what popular belief might dictate, the intense exercise did not cause any heart problems for any of the cardiac patients. The belief is that the short duration of the intervals helps insulate your heart from the intensity.

So even at a less than “all-out” exertion interval training can be beneficial for deconditioned individuals and/or those with diabetes and heart disease. Where interval training was once only looked at by fitness professionals as a tool for athletes or the highly conditioned, the new research may change that.

Does this mean there’s no value in low intensity aerobic exercise like walking? Absolutely not! In fact, if I were recommending exercise prescription for someone with diabetes, heart disease, etc, I’d start out with several weeks of low intensity aerobic exercise at 50-60% max heart rate.

Once an aerobic base was established however, safe forms or modified interval training could be very helpful in improving markers of health and wellness.

In a 2011 study, unfit but otherwise healthy middle-age adults were able to improve their insulin sensitivity and blood sugar regulation after just six sessions over two weeks. In another more study, individuals with full-blown type II diabetes improved blood sugar regulation over 24 hours after just ONE interval training session.

So where does all this information lead us in terms of exercise prescription?

Well, the traditional advice of completing ONLY low-intensity exercise for deconditioned individuals or those with cardiovascular health issues and/or blood sugar issues should be reconsidered.

It’s certainly not advisable for these individuals to run out and start doing P90X, Insanity, or some form of high intensity exercise. However, with supervision and planned progression these individuals could certainly benefit from eventually doing short bursts of higher intensity exercise.

I’ve found this to be true from personal experience working with clients. The key is proper progression and not rushing into it too soon.

A great place to start is with functional exercise that is low intensity in nature but works to improve movement patterns, range of motion, and muscular endurance. Think bodyweight training or exercises using things like medicine balls, bands, or light resistance.

Frequent bouts of low-intensity aerobic exercise (like walking) could be used in conjunction with the functional training workouts. From there traditional weight training using free weights, kettlebells, etc, could eventually be used with burst training principals. The aerobic exercise could also be intermixed with occasional bouts of interval training.

Once again it’s about the progression and use of balance in a fitness program. Taking it slow and one step at a time.

Bottom line is don’t look at interval/ burst training as a magic bullet or stand-alone solution, but at the same time don’t assume it’s only reserved for athletes and the already ultra-fit.

If you’re out of shape, deconditioned, or already at the level of insulin resistance, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease, you can leverage the benefits of short-duration, high intensity exercise.

Just look to get some professional instruction and guidance before going full-bore with this type of training. And certainly discuss your plans for exercise with your physician as individual exercise prescription will vary from person to person according to unique needs.

Here are references to the research mentioned in this article in case you’re interested:

Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease, The Journal of Physiology, 2012 Jan 30. [Epub ahead of print]

Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease, The Journal of Physiology, 2012 Jan 30. [Epub ahead of print]

Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans, Journal of Physiology, 2008 Jan 1;586(1):151-60

Low-volume interval training improves muscle oxidative capacity in sedentary adults, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2011 Oct;43(10):1849-56

Acute high-intensity interval exercise reduces the postprandial glucose response and prevalence of hyperglycaemia in patients with type 2 diabetes, Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, 2012 Jan 23 [Epub ahead of print]

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in helping people achieve a body transformation with burst training exercise and whole food nutrition. You can receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal fitness programs and start experiencing the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Hormones & Health.