If you have diabetes or prediabetes, odds are good that blood sugar is often on your mind. And even if you don’t have diabetes, big blood sugar swings can take you from super energized to lethargic and hangry. That’s not fun for anyone.
Wouldn’t it be nice if something as simple as a short walk could help keep blood sugar in line? And, in fact, research suggests walking after eating can do just that. Nurse and diabetes care and education specialist Shannon Knapp, MEd, BSN, RN, CDCES, discusses the benefits of a post-meal walk and what else to consider when managing your blood sugar levels.
What causes high blood sugar?
Your body turns the carbohydrates you eat into sugar (glucose). When things are working well, your pancreas releases insulin. This hormone transports glucose into your cells, so your body can use it for energy. But when things aren’t working as they should, you can end up with high blood sugar.
Knapp says two things typically cause problematic hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), and insulin is at the root of both of them. You may have high blood sugar because your:
- Pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin. Without enough insulin, glucose stays in your bloodstream and raises your blood glucose level. This is the hallmark of Type 1 diabetes, but is often seen in Type 2 diabetes as well.
- Body makes insulin but doesn’t use it correctly. This is called insulin resistance and can also cause high levels of glucose in your blood. It typically plays a role in Type 2 diabetes, but occurs in Type 1 diabetes as well.
Why does high blood sugar matter? “Over time, elevated blood sugar causes blood vessel damage,” says Knapp. Damaged blood vessels lead to serious complications, such as:
- Diabetes-related retinopathy, which can cause blindness.
- Diabetes-related nephropathy, which can lead to kidney failure.
- Heart attack.
- Nerve damage (neuropathy).
“It’s so important to keep your blood sugar in your target range if you have diabetes,” she continues. There are many ways to nudge your blood sugar into a healthy range — including a short walk after eating.
Benefits of walking after eating
There are many health benefits of walking, and walking after you eat can specifically benefit your blood sugar.
After meals, your blood glucose goes up (even if you don’t have diabetes). “Your blood sugar level is highest about 30 to 90 minutes after your meal,” shares Knapp. This rise is a natural response to eating, and it isn’t a concern unless your glucose spikes too high or remains at an unhealthy level.
But research shows that a short walk after eating a meal:
- Prevents your blood glucose from spiking as high as it would if you ate and then stayed sitting.
- Keeps your insulin levels stable.
Any activity is helpful for your blood glucose. “Exercise impacts your blood sugar quickly, often within a few minutes,” says Knapp. “And over time, physical activity helps your body use insulin more effectively, decreasing the insulin resistance we often see in diabetes.”
The study indicates that walking just two to five minutes can bump your blood sugar down a bit. “But this isn’t a magical solution for diabetes,” states Knapp. “A post-meal walk is a great habit that benefits blood sugar, but managing diabetes never comes down to just one thing.”
Watch out for low blood sugar if you have diabetes
Knapp also cautions that you can take exercise too far. If you’re on medication to lower your blood glucose, exercising can make it dip too low. Low blood sugar — hypoglycemia — can be dangerous.
A short walk is unlikely to cause hypoglycemia, but a hard workout could. “Always know your blood glucose levels,” Knapp advises. Timing your exercise is key. Whenever you exercise, check your glucose levels before and after activity. A blood glucose reading of less than 70 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) typically is in the hypoglycemic range. But before and during exercise, aiming for a blood glucose level closer to 100 mg/dL may be a safer option.
If you have a low reading, consume some fast-acting carbs to raise your glucose level. For example, drink a small cup of juice, take a spoonful of honey or use glucose tablets or gel. Your healthcare provider or diabetes care and education specialist can help you create a plan for treating hypoglycemia. And no matter what you choose to use for treating hypoglycemia, be sure to have it on hand during activity.
Other ways to manage blood sugar
“If you have diabetes, healthy habits are part of keeping your blood glucose in your target range. This is true even if you’re taking medication to manage your blood sugar,” says Knapp.
Good habits for natural blood sugar management include:
If you have diabetes, the other vital part of blood glucose management is knowing your levels. That’s why frequent blood sugar checks are so important.
Your target blood glucose range depends on when you last ate. For adults with diabetes, typical target blood glucose levels are:
- 80 to 130 mg/dL before you eat a meal.
- Less than 180 mg/dL one to two hours after the start of your meal.
Walking after meals can help stabilize your blood sugar and insulin, which may make it easier to hit your target range. If you don’t have diabetes, you can still benefit from post-meal strolls that reduce your blood sugar spikes.