Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Unless you’re exercising several hours a day already, you probably have room to add half an hour in for additional health benefits.
There is no doubt that physical exercise is mostly good for your health, and the list of benefits it provides grows with ever more studies being published. But i’m not here to discuss every single benefit trying to convince you to keep moving.
But i’m going to explain only one, but extremely powerful mechanism of exercising - the effect on blood sugar. And it might be surprising for some of you, but our muscle mass is directly related to blood sugar balance.
Achieving stable blood sugar is not just for those suffering from diabetes or obesity, it’s relevant for all of us, without exception! Almost every health condition, including depression, hormonal mayhem, acne, abnormal tissue growth is related to unstable blood sugar.
As you know, insulin produced by our pancreas helps the body's cells pick up sugar and use it as energy. In most healthy people, the body responds to glucose spikes (after the meal or any carbs intake) by releasing insulin, a hormone that works to bring glucose levels back down to normal. If, however, you repeatedly have too much glucose in your body, which is a consequence of our modern diet, over time the cells become “numb” to insulin, causing blood sugar to rise. This state is known as insulin resistance, and it is pro-inflammatory, causing huge damage throughout your body.
Exercise can virtually erase your blood glucose mistakes. It acts like an “extra dose of insulin”, without additional stress on the pancreas, by naturally and efficiently getting the excess of glucose out of your blood and into your muscles (through an insulin-independent mechanism related to muscle contractions themselves).
Being regularly active makes your muscles more sensitive to the insulin in your body, so it requires less to get the job done. What better way to help erase a little overeating of carbs than a moderate dose of exercise? Of course, you will never outrun a bad diet, but you will provide a tremendous help to your body to efficiently remove the excess of circulating sugar.
How much muscle you have matters enormously to blood glucose management. Exercise helps you build and retain your muscle mass, which is the main place you store carbs after you eat them. Almost any type of exercise uses up some of your muscle glycogen (the main storage form of glucose in the body) but if you don’t exercise regularly, your muscles remain packed with it. There is a maximal amount that fits in muscles, which is why building up your muscle mass helps with being able to handle the carbs you eat more effectively. Your liver also stores some glucose as glycogen, but the amount is relatively small compared to your muscle storage capacity.
Being sedentary ensures that no amount of insulin is going to be able stimulate more blood glucose uptake into your muscles. Without regular exercise to use up glycogen, you really have nowhere to store carbs, so your blood glucose goes up and some of the excess gets turned into body fat instead.
Moreover, having high blood sugar level is extremely damaging for the body, leading to chronic inflammation.
One thing to know, though, is that exercise doesn’t always make your blood glucose come down, at least not right away. Intense exercise causes a burst of glucose-raising hormones (like adrenaline and glucagon) that raise your blood glucose instead, only temporarily. But even if a workout raises it in the short run, over a longer period of time (2-3 hours), the residual effects of the exercise will bring your blood glucose back down while you’re replacing the carbs in your muscles.
Doing resistance or aerobic training is critical to maintaining the muscle mass you have and offsetting the effects of aging on muscles. Ideally, I would argue you need both types of exercise for a better outcome.
People with naturally lower levels of insulin generally live longer (think of centenarians and elite athletes, both of whom have low insulin levels). Exercise helps you keep your insulin needs low, which makes it easier to make enough of your own. Plus, it’s a lot harder to lose body fat if your insulin levels are high, because insulin promotes fat storage from excess blood glucose.
How regularly you exercise also has an impact on the insulin sensitivity of your muscles, so aim to be active at least every other day (although daily is likely better) and keep all those muscle fibers you have by using them regularly.
If nothing else, start getting more active by standing up more, taking extra steps during the day and just generally being on the move whenever and wherever possible.
If you can’t get in a planned workout on any given day, you can certainly add in more steps or other activity all day long instead (or do it in addition to your usual exercise.
I believe that muscle mass is perhaps one of the most underestimated organs in the body. It’s an incredible engine of fat and calorie burning mechanism, don’t ignore it.
Every bit of movement you do during the day counts, stay active!