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Health Hack #26 - Exercise & Insulin Sensitivity

Covid-related lockdown can pose a serious threat to our ability to ward off urges to snack and overeat. Many already accustomed to working from home understand the potential pitfalls of being less than 20 feet from your pantry all day long. It can be difficult to refrain from reaching for a handful of who knows what. Boredom can also play a huge role in our propensity to reach into the proverbial cookie jar, since our minds will quickly turn towards food when we’re not engaged in a focused task; especially when we know our access to food is so simple, with our kitchen only a few steps away.

In addition to our close proximity to too much food and many of the wrong types, we’re also in many cases relegated to moving less. Gone are many of our commutes, our 60 minutes sessions on the treadmill at the gym. Hopefully we’ve found ways to be outside, if only for a lengthy walk, but there’s still a good chance that overall, we’re now moving less and eating more.

Insulin Sensitivity

We’ve delved into the subject of insulin sensitivity in the past, citing how different types of sugars affect our insulin response in different ways (Not All Sugars are Created Equally, Either) and in extolling the virtues of the highest grade Extra Virgin Olive Oil (The Power of Extra Virgin Olive Oil), a plant oil known to improve our insulin sensitivity.

For a brief refresher, our goal is to become as insulin sensitive as possible. In other words, we’re always aiming to improve our insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a hormone produced by our pancreas in response to our consumption of most carbohydrates. The goal of the insulin is to best utilize the sugars (aka the glucose) from these carbohydrates. Insulin helps us convert the glucose to usable energy to fuel our bodies, and it also helps to store excess glucose for future use. The more insulin sensitive we become, the more effective insulin is at doing its job. When we’re inefficient, our glucose lingers for longer than we desire (meaning our blood glucose levels remain elevated) and runs the risk of being disproportionately stored as fat and liver glycogen, as opposed to being used up as energy. When we’re efficient at utilizing insulin, glucose is categorized and cleared from our bloodstream quickly.

Picture for a moment a sprawling parking area outside of a sports stadium or concert venue. The cars attempting to enter the lot and park represent our glucose, while the employees of the venue tasked with directing traffic serve as our insulin. A well trained staff has us parked and inside with precision, within plenty of time for the start of the event. An untrained staff, on the other hand, will leave us sitting in our cars much longer than we’d like, as they scramble around haphazardly in an attempt to make sense of where to place our cars, often leaving us parked far from the venue, in an unideal spot, while making us late for the start of the event.

Exercise & Insulin Sensitivity

Exercise in general helps to improve our insulin sensitivity, compelling those parking attendants to work more efficiently and intelligently over time. Exercising close to meal times accelerates the insulin sensitivity training even more. It turns out that very short sessions (literally less than 5 minutes) of intense exercise just prior to eating have a greater impact on reducing the post-meal insulin spike than does a moderately-intense 30 minute exercise session placed elsewhere in the day.

There is now terminology to describe these tiny exercise sessions, known as “Micro Workouts” or “Exercise Snacking”. What better time than now to experiment, when many of us are at home most of the time? No equipment needed, no change of clothing needed. For some this could mean a few quick sets of push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, burpees, backyard sprints, you name it - whatever suits your fancy. Just be mindful of there needing to be decent intensity involved in the exercise. This can be employed in addition to a lengthier exercise session held elsewhere in the day, or simply on its own. The point is, if you can find a way to be huffing and puffing prior to meal time as often as possible, you’ll likely be improving that ever so important insulin sensitivity.

To be clear - the suggestion is not that two to three 3 minute exercise bursts throughout the day trumps one 30-60 minute session. Instead, it’s meant to convey a helpful hack, that can be broken down into a variety of ways:

• If you’re super busy one day, even one 3-5 minute intense workout can be beneficial, particularly so when it immediately precedes a meal.

• When given control over exercise timing, pre-meal makes sense, especially when the meal on the immediate horizon is bound to be heavy-handed on the carbohydrates.

• While it may be difficult to derive complete workouts during quarantine with gyms still closed, brief Exercise Snacks are available and beneficial.

• If you can’t resist that gravitational force that always seems to be pulling you towards the kitchen, then at least try to fit in a few quick minutes of exercise before you give in!