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Another Reason to Keep Moving

Study Shows that Lowering Physical Activity Spikes Blood Sugar

We know that inactivity is unhealthy. Active people live longer. A 2011 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology involving more than 1.3 million people found that physical activity saves lives; the benefits increase with longer and more vigorous exercise. The researchers found that every 1,000 calories expended in physical activity over the course of a week lowered death rates by 11 percent. You can exercise longer or harder; both add to your healthy years. It may surprise you to to know that we’re just beginning to uncover the underlying mechanisms. Why does inactivity make us sick? How does staying active protect us?

There are reasons why we are slow to unravel the magic of movement and the hazards of inactivity. Studying the harmful effects of inactivity is hard. Sedentary people may also be obese, eat poorly, or have other health or lifestyle issues that make it almost impossible to determine the role of activity alone. Scientists from the University of Missouri astutely avoided the uncertainty by persuading healthy active young adults to slow down, stop being so active. They then monitored blood sugar fluctuations, especially after meals, because that is known to be a significant prognosticator of health and longevity. “Spikes and swings in blood sugar after meals have been linked to the development of heart disease and type 2 diabetes,” said John P. Thyfault, an associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology, who conducted the study along with his graduate student Catherine R. Mikus and others. The telling results are reported in the February, 2012, issue of Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise. (The study was also chronicled by Gretchen Reynolds in The New York Times.)

Thyfault’s active young volunteers cut their steps from over 10,000 or more a day to less than 5,000 steps. They did it by taking the elevator rather than using the stairs, and driving to work or the corner store rather than walking or biking, and other common energy saving maneuvers. Blood sugar changes were monitored continuously for three days at each level of activity. Diets were standardized for all subjects; they kept food diaries and ate the same during both study periods.

Ten thousand step days were routine for the participants (average age 29); the average was actually around 13,000 steps during the first monitoring period. The American Heart Association and other groups recommend at least 10,000 steps per day, the equivalent of about five miles of walking. The average American adult takes fewer than 5,000 steps a day--and 79 million Americans are currently estimated to be prediabetic.

The study participants cut back to about 4,300 steps on average during the second monitoring period.

During the three days of normal (for them) activity, the volunteers’ blood sugar did not spike after they ate; it fluctuated, but not abnormally. It was another story all together during the three days of reduced activity.

Cutting activity in half for three days wasn’t enough to change fitness or body composition, but it did make a considerable difference in blood sugar peaks after meals. Blood sugar peaks increased by about 26 percent compared to when they were exercising and moving more. Moreover, peaks grew higher with each successive day of inactivity. Blood sugar variability after meals increased by as much as twofold. 

Think about that. Only three days of reduced activity—on par with the activity level of most Americans—put healthy young adults on track to develop type 2 diabetes and perhaps heart disease. Is it any wonder that one third of Americans are predicted to have type 2 diabetes by the year 2050?

Thyfault assured Gretchen Reynolds that blood sugar control would return to normal once activity resumed. If inactivity continued, however, if it becomes a habit, it would likely become a serious concern. “We hypothesize that, over time, inactivity creates the physiological conditions that produce chronic disease,” like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Chalk up another rock-solid reason to keep moving. Even a single day of moderate- to vigorous-activity has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, according to the Thyfault-Mikus team.  

Professor Thyfault walks his talk. “When I’m really busy, I make sure to get up and walk around the office or jog in place every hour or so,” he told Reynolds. You don’t have to get your activity in big doses; your can do it a little at a time, throughout the day. “You don’t have to run marathons,” Thyfault confirmed. “But the evidence is clear that you do need to move.”  

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I don’t own a pedometer, but Carol has been wearing one for over three years. According to her computer record, she has logged an average of 9,800 steps per day over that time. About half is hiking and other forms of exercise; she walked on most days early on, but cut back when she started doing more weight workouts. The balance is made up of daily activities at home, at the office, or being out and about. As Dr. Thyfault suggested, physical activity can come in many forms.

Active living is a mindset. Carol and I enjoy movement; we make it part of our lifestyle. Our favorite movie theater is downtown, a 30-minutes drive from our home. We park in a four story parking structure, everyone does, it’s the only reliable place to park in that area. The difference is that we always park on the top floor and walk up and down the stairs. The elevator is slow; we never use it. (She beats me up the stairs if I slow down.) That’s just one example of how we make movement a regular--and fun--part of our life.

Something I’ve added recently is a routine I call “Morning Movement.” I do it every morning when I get up, before breakfast. It gets my joints moving and my blood flowing. It’s a wonderful way to start the day. I’ve never timed myself—it varies from day to day—but it takes about 10 minutes. I begin by opening and closing my hands, and then flex and extending my wrists and my elbows, rotate my shoulders and neck, and so on, until I’ve covered every part of my body. I devote extra time on my lower back, knees, and shoulders. I do overhead movements with a broomstick and an empty barbell. I end by doing squats with bodyweight, with the broomstick, and then the empty bar; 12 or so reps with each, whatever feels right. Morning Movement is a whole body wake-up, not a workout. It's fun; I look forward to it.

Like Professor Thyfault, I also get up and move around from time to time throughout my day—whenever I need a burst of energy—including several short walks in the neighborhood. Movement makes everything I do go better; it makes me more productive and efficient. It also speeds my recovery from workouts by getting rid of waste products and renewing my entire body. It keeps me happy and healthy.

Fortunately, science is finding more and more proven reasons to make movement a regular part of your life. Do it your way, but do it.    

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