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Which Exercise Is Best for Metabolic Health?

You know how some articles drag you through paragraphs of baiting and suspense before they deliver the goods? Well, we’d rather hit you with the truth right out of the gate:

The best exercises for metabolic health are the ones you can do anywhere, and the ones you like to do.

But we will tease you with a caveat…

There is one type of exercise that is debatably the best for metabolic health. If you can do it, bonus points and a keto cookie for you. Plus there’s another type of exercise that you should probably avoid (unless it’s your passion, in which case you have our blessing).

Shall we dash ahead then?  

How exercise is generally good for metabolic health

For our purposes in this article, metabolic health is when the body is sensitive to insulin and able to maintain normal blood glucose without crazy spikes. This internal metabolic health leads to the absence of metabolic diseases including obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, and CVD.

The first way exercise enhances metabolic health is that it makes cells more sensitive to insulin.

Exercise does this in part through burning free fatty acids that interfere with insulin sensitivity, [1] and also through depleting microscopic fat droplets in muscles, called intramyocellular lipids, which diminish insulin sensitivity when too plentiful. [2]

Second, exercise promotes metabolic health through larger muscles and a higher demand for muscle glycogen. When you do resistance training to gain muscle, your pumped up biceps have a higher resting metabolic rate than before you called them your ‘pythons.’ [3] This means you can eat more and fewer calories will be stored as fat.

(Yesss…)

Muscles also can store up to 80% of circulating glucose after a meal. [4] So if you exercise before or immediately after a meal, your hungry muscles will suck up the excess glucose, converting it into glycogen before it can spike your blood sugar and be stored as fat.

Lastly, exercise ratchets up metabolic health by increasing the quantity and quality of mitochondria. These power-producing organelles improve your energy capacity and are linked to better insulin sensitivity and glucose control. [4]

So which exercise is actually best?

We’re looking at metabolism through the lens of insulin sensitivity and glucose control. But we’re also grading exercises based on your likelihood of sticking with them.

HIIT

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is performed by doing 30-second to 3-minute bouts of usually anaerobic exercise.(Think burpees, jump squats, sprints, rowing.) It has several metabolic positives going for it, but most people just won’t stick with HIIT for the same reason that it’s beneficial:

It’s hard. [5]

A meta-analysis showed that it can improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose after a few months – two important considerations for a metabolically healthy exercise. But researchers hinted that these results were never that different from continuous moderate exercise.[6]

Unless HIIT workouts like CrossFit are your fave, we recommend something a touch more practical.

Cardio


Aerobic exercise include jogging, long-distance running, swimming, cycling, and anything that uses large muscle groups and can be maintained for the long haul.

Exercises like running have long been associated with lower risks for heart disease. And recent studies show that there’s actually no limit when it comes to the goodness of aerobic exercise –the more of it you do, the less chance you have of dying early. [7]

Scientists in Finland have demonstrated how aerobic fitness has a stronger link to favorable metabolic profiles than even strength. [8]

Further, aerobic training has been found to be more effective than weightlifting at reducing visceral fat and total abdominal fat, which are strongly associated with metabolic dysfunction. [9]

And what could be more practical than lacing up and beating the pavement for half an hour?

Resistance Training


But despite all the metabolic goodness we’ve mentioned in HIIT and aerobic exercise, resistance training could very possibly take our #1 spot. (We shall see!)

The increase in muscle size and resting metabolic rate…the ability to train anywhere you can knock out a few pushups.You can literally burn extra calories while you’re sleeping with weight lifting.

Resistance training is also backed by one of the largest studies ever done on exercise and metabolic health. Having tracked  7,400 hundred participants overran average of four years, E. A. Bakker et al found that one hour per week of resistance training was associated with a 17% lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome. [10] Case closed, right?

But here’s the kicker:

People who met the recommended resistance and aerobic guidelines had a 25% lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome. And this was totally independent of diet and other lifestyle factors.

So…what’s the verdict?

The best metabolic health exercise, pound for pound, is resistance training. You can combine resistance training with cardio and do HIIT sessions for more aerobic activity; you can blast three sets of deadlifts and call it a really good day. And that added muscle mass is associated with a much higher quality of life and lifespan as you age. [11]

More important than anyone exercise type, though, is moving throughout the day.

You could run and lift weights twice a week and still be metabolically unhealthy. But if all you ever did was walk, and you did it for 15 minutes after each meal, you’d prime your body to be more insulin sensitive while preventing your blood sugar from spiking. You’d walk your way into metabolic health.

PS: If you’ve thought about anyone while reading this post, please send this information their way. Better yet, invite them to be your partner in this week’s challenge! 

Metabolic Health Month Challenge #2

The second lifestyle change we’re recommending in Metabolic Health Month is exercising for 10-15 minutes either before or after each meal.

Could be gardening, could be cleaning the house… It really doesn’t matter. As long as you’re moving your body and resisting the force of gravity, you’re golden.

This one little change will help you to become more insulin sensitive than you’ve ever been, and it’ll prevent your glucose from spiking and triggering the crash/spike/crash cycle that unleashes metabolic hell (and destroys your focus).

We recommend walking for everybody, especially those just coming out of a sedentary lifestyle. But pushups, pull-ups, burpees, jogging, running, weight lifting, bear crawling, planking, skipping, kettlebell(ing?), and any other legal movement are great options too!

To start this challenge, share it with a friend, then tag us in a post with a picture of you doing your first 10-15minutes of exercise before or after a meal.

References

1) https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2019.00026/full

2) https://diabetesjournals.org/diabetes/article/59/3/572/13809/Restoration-of-Muscle-Mitochondrial-Function-and

3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3661116/

4) https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199001253220403

5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6763680/

6) https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/11630910-000000000-00000

7) https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003487

8) https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2748657

9) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3214001/

10) https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/fulltext

11) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4268803/


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