Can Resistance Exercise Improve Insulin Function?

By Michael A. Smith, MD

Lean, toned muscle not only looks good, but also improves sugar metabolism. It does this by helping your body respond better to the all-important hormone, insulin. If you remember from our previous blog posts, insulin is the hormone that directs blood glucose into cells. Once inside a cell, glucose can either be burned for immediate energy or stored as glycogen.

However, with age, poor diet and lack of exercise, your body can resist the positive effects of insulin, allowing the buildup of blood sugar. It turns out that this “resistance” to insulin is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes. Exacerbated by lack of exercise, sarcopenia, the loss of muscle tissue due to aging, has recently been linked with insulin resistance.1

So this begs the question: Can muscle-toning resistance exercises improve insulin sensitivity and help people with diabetes better manage their blood sugar?

Skeletal Muscle Dictates Insulin Sensitivity

So here’s the theory: Most of the cellular receptors for insulin are found on skeletal muscle. Of course that makes sense when you consider that skeletal muscle is very active and requires a lot of energy. If you keep your skeletal muscles healthy and strong, the muscles’ sensitivity to insulin will improve. The result will be optimal uptake of glucose from the blood.

But if you lose muscle mass (sarcopenia) and you get a little flabby, you could experience the opposite effect — reduced insulin sensitivity and a buildup of sugar in your blood.

To overcome this, your body will produce more and more insulin. Over time this could have a dampening effect on your insulin’s effectiveness. This means that managing blood sugar for diabetics, even with drugs, could be way more difficult.

Please note: Improving insulin resistance through muscle-toning resistance exercises may not work for obese people, as they seem to have different physiological responses to exercise than normal- weight people.2

Resistance Exercises for Improved Insulin Function

Resistance exercises are all about toning major muscle groups. Adults should try to exercise each major muscle group two or three days a week using a variety of exercises and equipment. Very light or light intensity is best for older people or previously sedentary adults who are just starting to exercise.

Typically, two to four sets of each exercise will help you improve your strength and power. Here are the major areas to focus on:

  1. Biceps
  2. Triceps
  3. Shoulders
  4. Chest
  5. Stomach
  6. Legs
Resistance exercises use relatively light weights and a high number of repetitions. For instance, 20 repetitions in 3 sets is a great way to improve muscle tone and endurance. Adults should typically wait at least 48 hours between resistance training sessions to rest and recover.

Circuit Training is a more Advanced Option

Now this is a workout! And it should only be done by people already in an exercise program with approval from their doctors. We like circuit training because it is a form of conditioning combining resistance training and high-intensity aerobics.

It’s designed to be easy to follow and targets strength building as well as muscular endurance. An exercise "circuit" is one completion of all exercises in the program. When one circuit is complete, you begin the first exercise again for another circuit. Typically, the time between exercises in circuit training is short, often with rapid movement to the next exercise.

Benefits of circuit training include:

  • An effective means of improving strength endurance (or muscular endurance).
  • May be easily structured to provide a whole body workout.
  • May not require expensive gym equipment.
  • Participants normally work in small groups, allowing beginners to be guided by more experienced individuals, as well as benefiting from the supervision of the instructor.
  • Can be adapted for any size workout area.
  • Can be customized for specificity; easy to adapt to your sport.
Ready to give it a shot? After you get the go-ahead from your doctor, give our health advisors a call at 1-800-226-2370 - they'll be happy to help you design your own personalized circuit training regimen.

So if you’re taking diabetes medications and sticking to your diet plan but are STILL having problems controlling blood sugar, Perhaps muscle is your missing link. Talk to your doctor to see if resistance exercises are right for you!

References:

  1. Endocrine. 2012 Apr 21. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22527891
  2. Sports Med. 2012 May 1;42(5):415-31.

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