Walking after a meal, conventional wisdom says, helps clear the mind and aids in digestion. Scientists also found that walking 15 minutes after a meal can lower blood sugar levels, which can help stave off complications like type 2 diabetes. But it turns out that even just a few minutes of walking can activate these benefits.
In a meta-analysis recently published in the journal Sports Medicine researchers analyzed the results of seven studies that compared the effects of sitting versus standing or walking on measures of heart health, including blood sugar and insulin levels. They found that brisk walking after a meal, in increments of as little as two to five minutes, had a significant impact on moderating blood sugar levels.
“Every little thing you do will pay off, even if it’s a small step,” said Dr. Kershaw Patel, a preventive cardiologist at Houston Methodist Hospital who was not involved in the study.
Very light walking lowers blood sugar levels.
In five of the studies the article evaluated, none of the participants had prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. The remaining two studies looked at people with and without these diseases. Participants were asked to stand up or walk for two to five minutes every 20 to 30 minutes over the course of a full day.
All seven studies showed that just a few minutes of brisk walking after a meal was enough to significantly improve blood sugar levels compared to, say, sitting at a desk or lying on the couch. When the participants took a short walk, their blood sugar levels rose and fell more gradually.
For people with diabetes, avoiding wild fluctuations in blood sugar levels is a critical component of managing their disease. Sudden spikes and drops in blood sugar levels are also thought to contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
Standing also helped lower blood sugar levels, though not to the extent that brisk walking did. “Standing had a small benefit,” said Aidan Buffey, a graduate student at the University of Limerick in Ireland and an author of the paper. Compared to sitting or standing, “light intensity walking was a superior intervention,” he said.
This is because brisk walking requires more active muscle engagement than standing and uses fuel from food at a time when it is circulating a lot in the bloodstream. “Your muscles will absorb some of that excess glucose,” said Jessie Inchauspé, author of the book “Glucose Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Balancing Your Blood Sugar.”
“You still had the same food, but the impact on your body will lessen,” he added.
Walking within 60 to 90 minutes of eating gives the best results.
Although a brisk walk at any time is good for your health, a short walk 60 to 90 minutes after eating can be especially helpful in minimizing spikes in blood sugar, as this is when blood sugar levels tend to rise. to reach its peak.
Ms. Inchauspé also recommended getting up to do housework or find other ways to move your body. This small amount of activity will also improve other dietary changes people may be making to help control their blood sugar levels.
“Moving even a little bit is worth it and can lead to measurable changes, as these studies have shown, in your markers of health,” said Dr. Euan Ashley, a cardiologist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study.
Mini rides are more practical during the workday.
Mr. Buffey, whose research focuses on physical activity interventions in work settings, noted that a two- to three-minute mini-walk is most practical during the workday. People “won’t get up and run on a treadmill or run around the office,” he said, but they could grab a coffee or even take a walk down the hall.
For people who work from home, he suggested a short walk around the block between Zoom meetings or after lunch. The more we normalize mini-walks during the workday, Buffey said, the more feasible they become. “If you’re in a rigid environment, that’s when difficulties can arise.”
If you can’t take those few minutes to take a walk, Dr. Ashley said, “standing will get you there.”
The benefits of physical activity are never all or nothing, Dr. Patel said, but instead exist on a continuum. “It’s a gradual effect of more activity, better health,” he said. “Every incremental step, every incremental stop or brisk walk seems to have a benefit.”
Rachel Fairbank is a freelance science writer based in Texas.