Walking after a meal, conventional wisdom says, helps clear your mind and aids in digestion. Scientists have also found that a 15-minute walk after a meal can lower blood sugar levels, which can help prevent complications such as type 2 diabetes. But it turns out that even a few minutes of walking can activate these benefits.
In a meta-analysis recently published in the journal Sports Medicine, researchers looked at the results of seven studies comparing the effects of sitting versus standing or walking on measures of heart health, including insulin and blood sugar levels. They found that walking lightly after a meal, in increments of just two to five minutes, had a significant impact on moderating blood sugar levels.
“Every little thing you do has benefits, even if it’s a small step,” says 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 reviewed, none of the participants had pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes. The remaining two studies looked at people with and without such diseases. The participants were asked to stand or walk for two to five minutes every 20 to 30 minutes for a full day.
All seven studies showed that just a few minutes of light-intensity walking after a meal was enough to significantly improve blood sugar levels compared to, say, sitting at a desk or plopping down on the couch. When participants took a short walk, their blood sugar rose and fell more gradually.
For people with diabetes, avoiding sharp swings in blood sugar is a critical part of managing their disease. It is also thought that sharp spikes and crashes in blood sugar may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
Standing also helped lower blood sugar, although not to the extent that walking lightly did. “Stands had a slight advantage,” said Aidan Buffey, a graduate student at the University of Limerick in Ireland and an author of the article. Compared to sitting or standing, “light-intensive walking was a superior intervention,” he said.
That’s because light walking requires a more active effort from the muscles than standing, using the fuel from food at a time when a lot is circulating in the bloodstream. “Your muscles will absorb some of that excess glucose,” says Jessie Inchauspé, author of the book “Glucose Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Balancing Your Blood Sugar.”
“You will still have the same meal, but the impact on your body will be reduced,” she added.
Walking within 60 to 90 minutes of eating produces the best results.
While light walking is good for your health at any time, a short walk within 60 to 90 minutes of eating a meal can be especially helpful in minimizing blood sugar spikes, as blood sugar tends to spike.
Ms. Inchauspé also recommended getting up to do housework or find other ways to move your body. This short amount of activity will also amplify other dietary changes that allow people to control their blood sugar levels.
“Even a little exercise is worth the effort and can lead to measurable changes, as these studies have shown, in your health markers,” said Dr. Euan Ashley, a cardiologist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study.
Mini-walks are more practical during the workday.
Mr. Buffey, whose research focuses on physical activity interventions in work environments, noted that a two- to three-minute mini-walk is more practical during the workday. People “won’t get up and run on a treadmill or run around the office,” he said, but they could get some coffee or even take a walk down the hall.
For people who work from home, he suggested taking a short walk around the block between Zoom meetings or after lunch. The more we normalize mini-walks during the workday, Mr Buffey said, the more feasible they will be. “If you’re in a rigid environment, the difficulties can come.”
If you can’t take those few minutes to go for a walk, said Dr. Ashley: “If you stand, you get there a little bit.”
The benefits of physical activity are never all or nothing, said Dr. Patel, but exist on a continuum instead. “It’s a gradual effect of more activity, better health,” he said. “Every step-by-step step, step-by-step stance, or brisk walk seems to have an advantage.”
Rachel Fairbank is a freelance science writer from Texas.