Written by: Peyton Lessard
Reviewed by: Emily J., MSc RD
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HIIT, strength training, and aerobic workouts are all great ways to improve your insulin sensitivity, but what specific exercises are best? Learn how to build a workout plan that improves your metabolic health.
When people think about exercise, they often associate it with weight loss or muscle gain. But there are other impactful benefits of exercise — such as reversing or preventing insulin resistance, improving metabolic health, and even reducing the risk for coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes . Research has shown that you can experience these benefits regardless of the type of exercise you engage in.
The most common types of exercise are:
But what are there specific exercises, frequencies, and durations that you can focus on in order to get the most out of your workouts? Read on for our research-backed tips.
You don’t always have to lift weights or run several miles to make a substantial difference in the way your body regulates glucose levels. In fact, walking is one of the most effective things you can do for your metabolic health.
Studies have shown that walking for even just 2 minutes after eating a meal can help lower your postprandial (post-meal) glucose response, though walking for about 30-45 minutes is even better for glycemic regulation — all of which can prevent your body from developing insulin resistance . Other research in obese women found that walking 50-70 minutes 3 times per week for 12 weeks resulted in weight loss and improved insulin sensitivity .
Interestingly, even just standing up throughout the day can reduce your postprandial glucose levels by about 9.5 percent .
The takeaway to keep in mind is that living a sedentary life — i.e., where you’re sitting for most of the day — is linked with poor metabolic health, and any kind of movement you enjoy (even walking around your home after a meal for a few minutes if you’re short on time) is better than nothing.
Within 2 hours of a meal, try getting at least 2 (but ideally 15-30) minutes of walking outside, every day. (If you do resistance training, try walking for longer sessions on days when you’re not lifting weights.) An easy way to get more walking into your life is to park your car a little farther away from a destination like a grocery store or a restaurant, or walk home (or walk to the next bus/train stop) if you live in a city.
Squats are a well-rounded exercise because they engage major muscle groups like your hip muscles, calves, hamstrings, obliques, and quadriceps — so you’re getting more bang for your buck. Squats also require core stabilization — another bonus.
Although research on squats and insulin resistance is limited, one study found that engaging in resistance or strength training exercises in general for less than one hour per week was associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, independent of aerobic exercise . Those who engaged in resistance exercise 2+ days per week and in aerobic exercise for 500+ minutes per week had a 17% lower risk of metabolic syndrome .
Start by doing 8-10 squats until you can comfortably do 3 sets of 10. Repeat these 3 sets of 10 squats at least 2-3 times per week. After that, you can add weight (dumbbells or a weighted backpack), but be sure to have a foundation and proper form before adding on any extra weight.
To avoid knee injury, research suggests that you should take extra care if you’re in a narrow stance with your feet pointing out at a 42-degree angle, or a wide stance with your feet parallel (a 0-degree angle) . After you feel comfortable, don’t be afraid to amp it up.
Swimming is one of the best aerobic exercises you can do. Not only is it a full-body aerobic workout that can strengthen your heart, but it’s also low-impact (meaning easier on your joints than exercises like running) and can help you improve your flexibility.
Research also shows that swimming can improve your insulin sensitivity. One 2018 study performed on both healthy participants and individuals with metabolic syndrome found that a swimming routine that consisted of 4 sessions per week (at 15, 30, 45, and 60 minutes respectively) for 3 months helped reduce HOMA-IR, which is an insulin resistance score .
Start by incorporating 30-minute swimming sessions into your week and work your way up to an hour. You can mix one or two swimming sessions per week with walking, jogging, cycling, or other aerobic activities.
Burpees combine a pushup and a jump in one movement. They’re a fantastic exercise to incorporate into a HIIT-style workout because they’re a full-body movement that engages multiple muscle groups and challenges both your flexibility and endurance.
One review looked at 50 studies that examined the effects of HIIT on markers of metabolic health including glucose regulation and insulin resistance . In both groups, there was a reduction in insulin resistance after the HIIT workout. HbA1c levels, a measure of one’s average blood sugar (glucose), decreased by 0.19% and body weight decreased by 1.3 kg, compared to the control group. Participants at risk of or with type 2 diabetes had reductions in fasting glucose levels.
Start by doing burpees for 30 seconds (making sure to give it your all) and resting for 30 seconds, and doing at least 3-5 sets. Keep doing this for about 10 minutes. If you want to switch things up, alternate burpees with exercises like mountain climbers, high knees, and jumping jacks. Repeat this HIIT-style workout 2-3 times per week, and gradually increase the time per workout to 20-30 minutes.
Yoga is a practice that is thousands of years old, but research has only recently focused on its effects on health. One of yoga’s best benefits for metabolic health is its ability to help you manage stress — scientists have found that just 8 weeks of yoga can help improve stress levels, which play an important role in glucose regulation .
Though more studies need to be done, some research has also found that yoga may improve your body’s ability to regulate glucose. One study had participants do a 60-minute yoga routine twice a week for 5 weeks, and revealed that postprandial glucose, fasting glucose, and HOMA-IR all decreased .
The best way to do yoga if you’re a beginner is to take a class at a local studio. The instructor will be able to help you make adjustments to your form and posture — ensuring that you’re safely performing the exercises. If you’re at home, try a mix of standing postures (like swaying palm tree posture and triangle posture) along with seated twists, breathwork/meditation, and light stretching .
There's no one size fits all approach to what the best type of exercise is. There’s also no “best” time of day to work out. It depends on your lifestyle, what feels right for your body, and what you enjoy doing.
However, consistency is king — even if it’s just 30 minutes of your day. Studies suggest that practicing a combination of resistance and aerobic exercises is beneficial for your metabolic health . In fact, it can improve your insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and Type 2 diabetes.
Current guidelines for adults (ages 18 - 64) suggest that for substantial health benefits, adults should engage in:
Additionally, adults should engage in muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or vigorous intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.
Not everyone’s workout schedule is going to look the same, and your workout schedule may differ from week to week as well. Staying committed to your routine and repeatedly showing up for yourself and your health will be worth it.
Here are examples of weekly workout routines according to intensity level:
While all exercise can improve insulin sensitivity can help reverse insulin resistance, if you use a CGM you may notice that your glucose levels spike temporarily after working out.
Exercise has short- and long-term effects on blood glucose. In the short term, exercise will increase the uptake of glucose by the muscles both during and after a workout . As a result, glucose will leave the bloodstream faster — lowering your blood glucose levels. Your muscles will use this glucose for immediate energy and store the rest for later.
Interestingly, some higher-intensity workouts like HIIT, sprinting, or biking can actually cause your blood glucose to spike temporarily . This is because your liver releases more glucose into the bloodstream so your muscles have enough energy to complete the challenging workout, which causes a spike. Don’t worry — this response is healthy and normal, and doesn’t contribute to insulin resistance.
There are benefits to all types of exercise, so whether you enjoy HIIT, resistance training, or aerobic exercises, you’ll be taking strides toward improving your metabolic health — just remember to keep track of what your personal health goals are and focus on the workouts you enjoy doing.