The Blood Sugar and Exercise Connection – How Your Diet Can Affect Your Fitness

A woman in lycra racing her shadow

If you’re trying to get in shape, you probably know how important it is to watch what you eat. At the same time, you also recognize the benefits that exercise offer in reaching your fitness goals. But you might not appreciate just how closely your blood sugar and exercise are connected. It’s easy to assume a higher blood sugar could lead to weight gain. Likewise, a lack of exercise can do the same because you burn fewer calories. But based on recent research, the connection between your blood sugar and exercise is much more involved.

According to research involving rodents and young adults, high blood glucose levels reduce these benefits from being active. Monitoring blood glucose, researchers noted that both rats and human subjects alike did less well as their glucose levels rose. Those with higher levels failed to show any improvements in their aerobic fitness even after several weeks of exercise. In contrast, those with normal levels had significant improvements in endurance and physical fitness. This shows that monitoring blood glucose levels might be more important than you think.

A ton of sugar and sweets around a blood sugar meter
Guess what? There is a connection between blood sugar and exercise – which you can further maximize your output by eating right.

How We Use Glucose in Our Bodies

In terms of basic physiology, all the cells in your body needs glucose for energy. Naturally, our diet routinely provides us with glucose in the form of sugars and carbohydrates. But at the same time, our bodies have the ability to make glucose from fats and proteins too. This is ideal when blood glucose levels are low and energy demands are high. But many times, blood glucose levels may be excessive even when energy needs are low. Not only does this result in our bodies storing glucose for later use (as fats or glycogen). But it also causes excessive insulin to be produced to help cells absorb this extra glucose.

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It’s well recognized that monitoring blood glucose levels are important for people with diabetes. If levels become too high, a number of health conditions can develop acutely and over time. This not only includes fluid and electrolyte imbalances but also heart disease, obesity, and hormonal problems. Likewise, if levels are too low, then cells lack adequate energy leading to all sorts of other problems. A low blood sugar and exercise is therefore a bad combination. Thus, the goal is to help your body maintain a stead and normal blood sugar level. For diabetics, this requires monitoring blood glucose levels on a regular basis.

New Insights from Research

As noted, the recent research conducted at Boston’s Joslin Diabetes Center provided new insights linking blood sugar and exercise together. In the rodent study, some rats were either fed a high sugar diet or given a substance that blocked insulin. Other rodents were given a normal diet. All the rodents then exercised on a treadmill over the next few months. And the researchers linked blood sugar with exercise by monitoring blood glucose levels. In addition, samples of their muscles were then taken for microscopic examination.

For the young adults studied, blood glucose levels naturally showed that some had higher levels than others. These participants were similarly asked to perform aerobic activity over several weeks while researchers were monitoring blood glucose levels. Samples of their muscles were also taken for evaluation after the experiment was concluded. And in both cases, rodents and humans, those with higher glucose levels failed to show improvement in exercise performance.

While the difference in physical fitness was intriguing, the muscle samples were even more so. In both the rodents and young adults, those with higher glucose levels showed increased protein deposits in the muscle samples. And those with lower blood sugar had increased muscle fiber size and blood vessels. In other words, higher glucose hindered the ability of the muscles to respond well to aerobic activity. Blood sugar and exercise appeared to be linked in ways not previously appreciated.

Glucose Control Isn’t Just for Diabetics

For many years, diabetics have been taught the importance of monitoring blood glucose. By keeping levels from getting too high or low, presumably better health outcomes result. But the latest study suggests that monitoring blood glucose may be important for others as well. This is especially true for those with pre-diabetes. Pre-diabetic individuals have occasionally high blood sugar but not consistently enough to qualify as a true diabetic. But given the connection between blood sugar and exercise, pre-diabetics may also want to check-in more often.

The bigger issue with these current research findings linking blood sugar and exercise involves dietary habits. Often, diet is considered a separate activity from exercise when pursuing weight loss or health. But clearly, the blood sugar and exercise connection are more involved. If high blood glucose prevents us from reaping the benefits of exercise, diet becomes even more important. Monitoring your blood glucose may not be necessary, but watching what you eat may be of greater interest.

Using Your Diet to Improve Your Fitness

With this in mind, there are some best practices to consider when it comes to your blood sugar and exercise. The first involves the types of foods you choose. Avoid foods with high sugar content, and especially those that are highly processed. These are not likely to be good choices. These tend to cause rapid fluctuations in your blood sugar, which may be detrimental. Not only can this trigger sugar cravings, but it may also undermine your fitness efforts. Instead, eat more healthy and complex carbohydrates, like fruits, whole grains and vegetables. These are less likely to prevent ups and downs in your blood glucose levels.

In addition to the carbs you choose to eat, you may also want to pursue a more balanced meal approach. Making sure that you include healthy fats and proteins in your diet is also important. In subjects who have been monitoring their blood glucose levels, a balanced diet promotes greater stability. This will help you maintain better weight control and reduce your risk for other health problems later. And based on the research, it will allow you to get the most out of your exercise. The importance of both diet and exercise in our efforts toward a longer life expectancy is not a new revelation. But the need to consider both together is something that is becoming increasingly evident in our pursuits for optimal wellness.

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