How to Improve Insulin Sensitivity with Intense Exercise

How to Improve Insulin Sensitivity with Intense Exercise

Some experts estimate that up to 75% of American adults may have low insulin sensitivity and most are unaware of it, putting them at risk for prediabetes, diabetes and other diseases.

Insulin is a hormone created by the pancreas which is vital for a properly functioning metabolism, and plays a major role in blood glucose control. Insulin sensitivity is the body's response to glucose, which varies from person to person.  Having low insulin sensitivity, also known as insulin resistance, means your body isn't processing sugar properly and therefore your blood glucose levels are unstable. Insulin resistance often indicates high blood pressure, high cholesterol and leads to other more serious conditions, if not addressed in early stages. 

Read on to learn about an intensive but easy exercise approach to help you improve your insulin sensitivity. 

Improving insulin sensitivity through lifestyle modification

Most people are aware that portion-controlled diets and meals with low glycemic load can, over time, help re-establish insulin sensitivity in many individuals, especially those with metabolic syndrome. However, exercise is also essential in reclaiming insulin sensitivity. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) endorses a program including:

  • Five 30-minutes sessions of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity each week, which may include walking (or hiking), cycling, sports (like tennis or swimming), or physical activities like gardening or dancing. If you are engaging in moderate activity, you should be able to talk normally while participating.
  • Resistance training, which can take one of several forms within your individual level of tolerance: calisthenics, resistance bands, or more conventional weight training with dumbbells, barbells, or machines at a gym.

No one can deny that regular, moderate activity improves insulin sensitivity substantially. Numerous studies support regular aerobic exercise as a reasonable approach to improving cholesterol and lowering blood glucose, and moderate strength training, by building more lean tissue, independently improves glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity. However, a growing body of evidence questions whether that protocol yields the best results possible.

How to exercise for improved insulin sensitivity

Newer studies suggest that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may improve insulin sensitivity better than traditional steady-state cardio. Unlike the ADA protocol, HIIT work intervals are not performed in a zone of “conversational comfort.” So what does a HIIT workout look like?

HIIT is a method of training that alternates very easy recovery intervals with maximally intense work intervals, usually 10-30 seconds in length, much like traditional interval training. However, HIIT requires one additional element: each work interval must reach, and briefly sustain, at least 95% of maximum heart rate, an “all-out effort.” A good rule of thumb is that your maximum heart rate will be 220 minus your age, so if you were 40 and doing a HIIT work interval, expect to push your heart rate to 170 or more briefly.

What to expect from High-Intensity Interval Training

You can use a variety of training devices for HIIT, or do the entire workout with only a pair of running shoes. HIIT can be done on ergs, step mills, exercise bicycles, Arc Trainers, or dozens of other ways. Some of the most effective HIIT workouts involve uphill sprints, then walking back down, again and again.

After a warm up of about five minutes, sprint all out for about 30 seconds, or less, then slowly walk for 90 seconds. Repeat the 120-second sprint/walk cycle about eight times, and then walk slowly for another 5 minutes to cool down. Do this workout three times per week. If at first, you cannot do eight cycles, do as many as you can and increase to eight over a period of months.

HIIT workouts have numerous health benefits:

  • HIIT incinerates visceral fat and improves body composition.
  • HIIT enhances anaerobic capacity.
  • HIIT dramatically improves max vO2.
  • HIIT sharply improves insulin sensitivity.

HIIT workouts are exceptionally brief and improve exercise compliance, and if you are exercising, you are improving insulin sensitivity. It’s time to reclaim your health.