Walking better than high-intensity exercise for diabetics

Walking, strolling and standing more during the day is better for sugar regulation in diabetics than an hour of high-intensity exercise. 'The standard for people with diabetes is to spend thirty minutes to an hour doing high-intensity exercise every day. As it turns out, this norm is insufficient,' says Bernard Duvivier, a researcher with the department of Human Biology and Human Movement Sciences at Maastricht University. Duvivier published his findings on Thursday 1 December in the European scientific journal Diabetologia.

Three exercise regimes

Low-intensity, everyday activities such as standing, strolling or walking have a better effect on blood sugar regulation in diabetics than an hour of high-intensity exercise. The condition is that the calorie expenditure is roughly the same for both activities. Duvivier, a native of Belgium, developed three exercise regimes as part of his research and asked nineteen people with type 2 diabetes to follow each regime for four consecutive days. The regimes were separated by a ten-day rest period. For the first regime, the participants were asked to sit for fourteen hours a day. They were allowed to walk for two hours a day in the hours they weren't sleeping. For the second regime, the participants were asked to replace one hour of sitting with one hour of high-intensity cycling. For the third regime, the participants were asked to replace five hours of sitting with two hours of walking and three hours of standing. The cycling took place under supervision at the university. The other activities took place in the participants' homes and were carefully monitored with an activity tracker.

Improved sugar regulation

On the last day of each regime, the participants were given pre-packaged meals to take home. The research team performed a 24-hour sugar measurement using a sugar sensor in the abdomen. The next day, the researchers took blood samples to measure blood sugar, insulin resistance and fat levels. Insulin resistance is a way to determine the body's ability to absorb sugar from the blood with the hormone insulin. The lower the insulin resistance, the better the sugar regulation. Improved sugar and fat values in the blood were detected for both the second and third exercise regimes. While calorie consumption was the same during the second and third exercise regimes, insulin resistance was better for the third regime than the second (see graph). 

Exercise standard insufficient

"The research results reveal that an hour of exercise can't compensate for an entire day of sitting and that less sitting in general is extremely important for diabetics. The results also suggest that strolling can be an excellent alternative to exercising as a way for diabetics to control their sugar levels,' says Duvivier. 'The exercise norm for this group of patients – at least thirty minutes of high-intensity exercise every day – is insufficient. Not everyone can or wants to exercise, which means a lot of people do not heed this advice. Guidelines are currently being developed that stress the importance of sitting less.' 

Other target groups

The advantages of sitting less compared to one hour of high-intensity exercise do not apply exclusively to diabetics. The same group of human movement scientists at Maastricht University published a similar study in 2013 on a group of healthy students between the ages of 19 and 24. They found that the benefits of a long period of slow, low-intensity exercise has greater health benefits than short periods of high-intensity exercise. Duvivier is currently investigating whether the low-intensity regime offers health benefits for obese people as well. The initial results suggest that walking and standing is also effective for people with obesity.

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