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Exercise and Metabolic Health

Which Exercise Is Best?


·     exercise increases insulin sensitivity and metabolic rate

·     larger muscles soak up more glucose

·     when you exercise is just as important as the type of exercise

·     resistance training is pretty great for the ol’ metabolism

·     fasted exercise is fiercely good for you

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 enjoy doing.

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 workout 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 a normal blood glucose without crazy swings. 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 (IMCLs), 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.


Muscles also can store up to 80% of circulating glucose after a meal. [4] So if you exercise before or immediately after din-din (sorry for calling it that),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. [5]

So which exercise is actually best for metabolic health?

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.


High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is performed by doing 30-second to 3-minute bouts of mostly 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. [6]

A metaanalysis 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. [7]

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


Aerobic exercise includes 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. [8]

Scientists in Finland have demonstrated how aerobic fitness has a stronger link to favorable metabolic profiles than even strength. [9]

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. [10]

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 weightlifting.

Resistance training is also backed by one of the largest studies ever done on exercise and metabolic health. Having tracked  7,400 hundred participants overan 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. [11] 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. [12]

More important than any one 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 40 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.

Exercise timing

This article ain’t over yet. Because the type of exercise you do might not be as important as when you exercise.

First up in the timing department:

Fasted exercising

Fasted exercising is simply doing your workout – no matter how strenuous or relaxed – before eating your first meal.

Now, why submit yourself to such masochism?

For one, fasted workouts burn more of the metabolism-gunking intramyocellular lipids than training with a full tank. In a study conducted on 20 healthy men over six weeks, fasted cyclists burned substantially more IMCLs compared to those who ate before training. [13]

(The latter burned precisely none.)

For two, fasted participants replenished their muscle glycogen much more effectively than the fed group.[13]

This means that when you break your fast after a brisk morning jog or workout, your blood sugar basically doesn’t have an option of spiking because your body will be primed to store glucose as either glycogen or as IMCLs.

Nothing but good happening here, people.

Fasted exercising also increases your mitochondria’s ability to turn nutrients into energy. [14] Mitochondria are the fabled reactors of the cell. So when they start decreasing in function, your metabolism dips while your blood sugar peaks.

Fasted exercise is a brilliant way to keep your metabolic powerhouses cranking at full capacity. And, from Team Veri’s experience, it’s actually an energizing experience that decreases hunger.

(Not so masochistic after all.)

Exercising after meals

The second part of exercise timing is about moving after a meal.

Now wait…

We just said that fasted exercise is better than training on a full stomach.And that’s perfectly true, metabolically speaking.

But exercising right after a meal has one enormous benefit –

It dramatically reduces blood sugar.

In a study done on 14 healthy women, slow walking for 40 minutes after a meal turned what would otherwise have been a glucose spike into a gentler curve.[14] The same was true for walking just 15 minutes, but the benefit wasn’t as pronounced.

Many other studies have come to the same conclusion:

Exercising after a meal is a metabolic must. [15] And researchers believe that this phenomenon is linked to your increased metabolic rate while exercising, as well as higher glycogen uptake in active muscles.

So don’t feel that fasted exercise has to compete with post-meal exercise –they’re both valuable metabolic health tools.

Just try to do your main workout before you eat breakfast. And then walk for 30-ish minutes after lunch and dinner whenever you can and want to!

Piece of cake 🍰

Stuff we say at the end

Unless you’re just really, really overdoing it, most exercise is going to improve your metabolic health.

We think that weight training is the best exercise for metabolic health – though many would disagree.

But the bottom line?

·     do what you love to do

·     try to exercise in a fasted state a few mornings per week

·     post-meal walks are metabolic gold

And if you’re really curious to know which exercises are best for your health, you’ve got to get a CGM and see firsthand which routines are having the biggest effect on your glucose.



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Further reading