A new paper suggests that it takes far less exercise than was previously thought to lower blood sugar after eating. Walking after a meal, conventional wisdom says, helps clear your mind and aids in digestion. Scientists have also found that going for a 15-minute walk after a meal can reduce blood sugar levels, which can help ward off complications such as Type 2 diabetes. But, as it turns out, even just a few minutes of walking can activate these benefits.
In a meta-analysis, recently published in the journal Sports Medicine, researchers looked at the results of seven studies that compared the effects of sitting versus standing or walking on measures of heart health, including insulin and blood sugar levels. They found that light walking after a meal, in increments of as little as two to five minutes, had a significant impact in moderating blood sugar levels.
“Each small thing you do will have benefits, even if it is a small step,” said Dr. Kershaw Patel, a preventive cardiologist at Houston Methodist Hospital who was not involved in the study.
Very light walking reduces blood sugar levels.
In five of the studies that the paper evaluated, none of the participants had pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes. The remaining two studies looked at people with and without such illnesses. Participants were asked to either stand or walk for two to five minutes every 20 to 30 minutes over the course of a full day.
All seven studies showed that just a few minutes of light-intensity walking after a meal were enough to significantly improve blood sugar levels compared to, say, sitting at a desk or plopping down on the couch. When participants went for a short walk, their blood sugar levels rose and fell more gradually.
For people with diabetes, avoiding sharp fluctuations in blood sugar levels is a critical component in managing their illness. It’s also thought that sharp spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels can contribute to developing Type 2 diabetes.
Standing also helped lower blood sugar levels, although not to the degree that light walking did. “Standing did have a small benefit,” Aidan Buffey, a graduate student at the University of Limerick in Ireland and an author of the paper, said. Compared to sitting or standing, “light-intensity walking was a superior intervention,” he said.
That’s because light walking requires more active engagement of muscles than standing and uses the fuel from food at a time when there is a lot of it circulating in the bloodstream. “Your muscles will soak up some of that excess glucose,” said Jessie Inchauspé, author of the book “Glucose Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Balancing Your Blood Sugar.”
“You still had the same meal, but the impact on your body will be lessened,” she added.
Walking within 60 to 90 minutes after eating delivers the best results.
Although light walking at any time is good for your health, a short walk within 60 to 90 minutes of eating a meal can be especially useful in minimizing blood sugar spikes, as that is when blood sugar levels tend to peak.
Ms. Inchauspé also recommended getting up to do housework or finding other ways to move your body. This short amount of activity will also enhance other dietary changes that people may be making to help control their blood sugar levels.
“Moving even a little bit is worthwhile and can lead to measurable changes, as these studies showed, in your health markers,” Dr. Euan Ashley, a cardiologist at Stanford University who was not associated with the study, said.
Mini-walks are more practical during the workday.
Mr. Buffey, whose research focuses on physical activity interventions in workplace environments, noted that a mini-walk of two to three minutes is more practical during the workday. People “are not going to get up and run on a treadmill or run around the office,” he said, but they could get some coffee or even go for a stroll down the hallway.
For people working from home, he suggested a short walk around the block between Zoom meetings or after lunch. The more we normalize mini-walks during the workday, Mr. Buffey said, the more feasible they will be. “If you are in a rigid environment, that’s when the difficulties may come.” If you cannot take those few minutes to take a walk, Dr. Ashley said, “standing will get you some of the way there.”
The benefits of physical activity are never all or nothing, Dr. Patel said, but instead exist on a continuum. “It’s a gradual effect of more activity, better health,” he said. “Each incremental step, each incremental stand or brisk walk appears to have a benefit.”
Critics By Sarah Garone
After a satisfying meal with family and friends, if a little voice inside tells you it’s time to head out for a stroll, you may want to listen. Not only is a walk after eating a pleasant way to enjoy social connection with others, it also offers surprising benefits for your health. From improved digestion to better blood sugar management, a lap around the block (or further) might just be the perfect finishing touch to a meal.
Read on for five reasons to take a walk after breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
May Improve Digestion
The internal nudge you may feel toward getting up and out after a meal might be coming from your gut. Research shows that post-meal movement can actually help you better digest your food.
Other, more recent, research has shown that physical activity can improve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). According to a 2020 study, the severity of gastrointestinal symptoms in younger people with IBS was lessened when they took more steps in their day.2 (However, it’s unclear whether they walked immediately following a meal.)
Though some people may experience indigestion from working up a sweat after eating, overall, physical activity appears to have a protective effect on colon cancer risks, and possibly some other diseases in the GI tract.3 More research is still needed.
May Help Reduce Blood Sugar Levels
In a small 2013 study, older adults with pre-diabetes experienced better glycemic control from walking after meals than from merely taking a morning walk.
Another study yielded equivalent results, finding that people with type 2 diabetes had better blood sugar measures when they walked after meals, compared to a single daily walk. The most dramatic improvements occurred when walking after dinner.5 Sounds like good reason to take a quick stroll before settling into more sedentary activities for the evening!
May Help Regulate Blood Pressure
You’ve probably heard that exercise is a helpful means of lowering blood pressure. What you may not have heard is that timing brief walks throughout the day (such as after meals) could offer even more results for hypertension than one longer bout of exercise.
According to a 2016 study, the accumulated effects of 10-minute bouts of physical activity significantly brought down diastolic blood pressure in people with pre-hypertension.
Mealtimes can serve as a convenient trigger for working in these shorter bouts of light exercise.
May Reduce Heart Disease Risk
As you work to bring down your blood pressure with after-meal walks, you’ll do your body the additional favor of lowering your risk of heart disease. People who keep their blood pressure within healthy limits have less incidence of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Since 47% of Americans have high blood pressure (and only one in four has it under control), we’d all do well to squeeze in a stroll after mealtimes.7
May Lessen Bloating
Whether you suffer with bloating as a result of occasional overeating, food sensitivities, or irritable bowel syndrome, a walk could be just the thing to tame a distended tummy.
As discussed above, research indicates that the more steps people with IBS get in a day, the less likely they may be to experience adverse symptoms, including bloating. And it’s not just people with IBS who could calm belly bloating with a walk around the block. A four-week study from 2021 found that when people with non-IBS-related bloating went for a 10-15 minute walk after meals, they reported relief.8
When bloating has you feeling uncomfortable after eating, consider a walk as quick, side effect-free treatment.
- “Physical Activity”. Harvard School of Public Health. 21 October 2012. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
- “Top 10 Most Common Health Issues”. University of Rochester. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
- Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Physical Activity Fundamental To Preventing Disease (Report). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
- Tomporowski PD (March 2003). “Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognition”. Acta Psychologica. 112 (3): 297–324. doi:10.1016/s0001-6918(02)00134-8. PMID12595152.
- “Physical Exercise for Brain Health”. Brain HQ. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
- Molteni R, Zheng JQ, Ying Z, Gómez-Pinilla F, Twiss JL (June 2004). “Voluntary exercise increases axonal regeneration from sensory neurons”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 101 (22): 8473–8478. Bibcode:2004PNAS..101.8473M. doi:10.1073/pnas.0401443101. PMC420418. PMID15159540.
- “How Exercise Helps Protect Your Brain From Cognitive Decline”. Time. Retrieved 2021-03-13.
- “Physical Activity Guidelines”(PDF). health.gov. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
- “Benefits of Physical Activity”. CDC. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
- “Physical Activity and Weight Control”. MentalHelp.net – An American Addiction Centers Resource. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
- doi:10.1007/978-981-10-4307-9_3. ISBN978-981-10-4306-2. PMID29022256.
- Stanford KI, Goodyear LJ (December 2014). “Exercise and type 2 diabetes: molecular mechanisms regulating glucose uptake in skeletal muscle”. Advances in Physiology Education. 38 (4): 308–314. doi:10.1152/advan.00080.2014. PMC4315445. PMID25434013.
- Nystoriak MA, Bhatnagar A (2018). “Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise”. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. 5: 135. doi:10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135. PMC6172294. PMID30324108.
- Pinckard K, Baskin KK, Stanford KI (2019). “Effects of Exercise to Improve Cardiovascular Health”. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. 6: 69. doi:10.3389/fcvm.2019.00069. PMC6557987. PMID31214598.
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