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If your parents told you to exercise after eating, they were right

U of T research suggests post-meal exercise reduces risk of insulin buildup
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In the study, doing body-weight exercises after eating reduced insulin buildup. YERIN LEE/THE VARSITY
In the study, doing body-weight exercises after eating reduced insulin buildup. YERIN LEE/THE VARSITY

In the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted most occupations to online platforms. As a result, many adults are experiencing more uninterrupted sedentary time than before the pandemic, leaving them at a higher risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases, especially after eating a meal.

The risk often results from increased insulin or glucose levels in the bloodstream. After eating, food is digested and then enters the bloodstream. To absorb glucose into cells for respiration, the pancreas produces the enzyme insulin. This is why the amount of glucose and insulin in the blood rises shortly after eating a meal.

A recent University of Toronto research paper proposes that taking short body-weight exercise breaks during prolonged sitting activities may reduce blood sugar levels after meals.

The danger of glucose buildup

Jenna Gillen, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education and lead author of the research paper in question, explained the risks of insulin buildup in an email to The Varsity. She explained that “Increased insulin concentrations in response to meals can be an early sign of risk for metabolic diseases, like type 2 diabetes. It suggests a greater amount of insulin is needed to lower blood sugar concentration following a meal.”

Taking part in physical activities decreases one’s chance of developing cardiometabolic diseases, such as diabetes. During exercise, the body requires more glucose to maintain cell function and thus needs more insulin to break down this glucose.

Hectic lifestyles can make working out or strolling after lunch difficult. For this reason, Gillen set out to determine whether body-weight exercises or taking walking breaks after prolonged sitting impact the glycemic and insulin levels in adults after meals.

Gillen and her team recruited 14 healthy but inactive adults ranging from ages 18–35 and tested their blood sugar levels. An adult was deemed as inactive if they got less than 150 minutes of exercise per week or had a sitting time of over seven hours per day.

Post-meal exercise

The team took blood samples at 30-minute intervals for 7.5 hours, specifically after participants had eaten and exercised. 

The research spanned three days. The first was designated for uninterrupted sitting at 30-minute intervals. The second day consisted of two-minute walks, followed by the third day when participants incorporated a minute of repeated squats at 30-minute intervals. The participants’ diets consisted of approximately 2,027 calories a day, most of which were carbohydrates.

The results showed that the insulin concentration was lower in the squatting groups after having eaten lunch when compared to groups that remained sitting or went on walks. These results show that frequently interrupting sitting with squats is the most effective alternative to walking breaks to reduce post-meal insulin levels in healthy adults.

These results are most significant for adults with Type 2 diabetes, whose bodies do not produce enough insulin. Gillen also wrote that diabetic adults can achieve similar results by exercising at other times of the day instead of just after a meal. “There is evidence to suggest that a similar frequency of activity breaks throughout the day… can lower the spikes in blood sugar following meals in those with obesity and type two diabetes,” she wrote.

All in all, it is essential to maintain one’s health in these difficult and unusual times. Whether it be in the simple forms of doing squats or walking around your workspace, some form of movement during the day is essential for physical and mental wellness.