Short, High-Intensity Exercise Improves Insulin Production in Type 2 Diabetes

Short sessions of high-intensity exercise including functional movement and resistance training may improve the function of the insulin-producing beta cells in people with Type 2 diabetes, according to a small new study. Approximately 28 million people in the United States are living with Type 2 diabetes, which is characterized by insulin resistance (in which the cells do not use insulin efficiently) and insufficient insulin secretion by the pancreas.

Previous research has shown that aerobic activities, or exercises that increase the heart rate, improve beta-cell function and insulin secretion in people with Type 2 diabetes. However, a subset of people with Type 2 appear to have “exercise resistance” and do not experience an improvement in blood sugar control from regular physical activity.

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To determine the effectiveness of an alternate form of physical activity known as functional high-intensity training (F-HIT) — which combines movements such as weight lifting, aerobic exercise, and gymnastics — on beta-cell function, researchers worked with 12 adults with an average age of 53 who had Type 2 diabetes. The participants engaged in a six-week F-HIT program developed and overseen by a CrossFit trainer, attending three training sessions per week. Activities changed each week and included a high-intensity session in which subjects reached more than 85% of their maximum target heart rate.

The subjects underwent oral glucose tolerance testing (in which blood sugar levels are measured before and after the consumption of a glucose-rich drink) and body fat and body mass measurements before and after the study. The exercise trainer also recorded how many repetitions of squats, sit-ups, and rowing the participants completed on the second and last days of the study to determine exercise capacity and fitness.

The researchers found that the F-HIT program resulted in significant increases in beta-cell function, liver function, and exercise capacity, as well as losses in weight and body fat percentage — all factors that can improve blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. “Here we show that exercise at high intensity for as little as 10 to 20 minutes per day, three days a week for six weeks improves beta-cell function in adults with Type 2 diabetes,” the researchers note.

“Adults with [Type 2 diabetes] may find it difficult to adhere to a strict exercise regimen, citing ‘lack of time’ as one of the primary barriers,” they add. “F-HIT programs like CrossFit may address this barrier by providing structure, supervision, and accountability, with a minimal time commitment.”

For more information, see the article “Short, High-Intensity Exercise Sessions Improve Insulin Production in Type 2 Diabetes” or the study’s abstract in the American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism. And to learn about using physical activity to improve insulin sensitivity, read the article “Increasing Insulin Sensitivity,” by diabetes and exercise specialist Dr. Sheri Colberg.

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