Insulin sensitivity refers to the biological response of target tissues such as muscle to the actions of insulin. In other words, insulin sensitivity refers to how well insulin performs its role of transporting and storing fuels in specific cells in the body, particularly glucose.
Insulin sensitivity varies between individuals and is reduced in people with diabetes.
Medication aside, lifestyle plays an important role in helping boost insulin sensitivity and prevent impaired tissue responses (insulin resistance), which, in turn, supports blood glucose disposal and improves diabetes management.
Lifestyle choices do this in a number of ways:
- Strength training increases muscle mass which serves as a major storage house for glucose.
- Walking and other forms of low-intensity exercise can reduce blood glucose.
- Stress management including meditation and a good quality sleep pattern help control excess production of counterregulatory stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which increase blood glucose levels.
All of the above help improve the action of diabetes medication and whatever is left of natural insulin production. Obviously, the effects of each lifestyle factor will vary depending on how often they are conducted, their intensity and, of course, inter-individual physiology and genetics.
Treat this article like an accountability checklist.
If you live with diabetes and aren’t following any of the five lifestyle behaviors listed, you might be missing a few tricks for improving health, managing your diabetes, and building that body you always wanted.
Daily Routine #1 – Perform at Least 20-45 Minutes of Anaerobic Exercise Every Single Day
Anaerobic exercise is defined as physical exercise that is intense enough to generate lactate.
You know you have generated lactate when you start feeling a burning sensation in your muscles. High rep squats and sprint intervals get you burning pretty quick. Strength training and high-intensity interval training are prime examples of anaerobic exercise.
The human body responds differently when trained with anaerobic exercise compared to aerobic exercise. The adaptions that occur to the muscle energy systems are of particular interest and benefit to people with diabetes.
Anaerobic training increases insulin sensitivity and stimulates skeletal muscle tissue to absorb glucose from the bloodstream independently of insulin. This is achieved through the stimulation of specific glucose transporters called GLUT-4. The more anaerobic work a muscle fiber has to contend with, the greater number of GLUT-4 rise to the surface of a muscle cell for the purpose of glucose extraction. Once glucose is absorbed from the bloodstream it is stored as muscle glycogen.
Increased insulin sensitivity is just one of the many benefits of anaerobic exercise. There are plenty more, which I will cover another time.
How often and how much anaerobic training should I perform?
Perform anaerobic training at least 3 times per week in the form of:
- 20-60 minutes of strength training – whole body, body part splits, etc.
- 10-20 minutes high-intensity interval training – skipping, spinning, battle ropes, sprints etc.
All of these training bouts will improve glucose uptake and improve blood glucose management in people living with diabetes.
Daily Routine #2 – Get and Stay Lean
It is well-established that high levels of body fat result from living in a calorie surplus for a prolonged amount of time. Excess body fat accumulation is not only unsightly, but highly inflammatory and detrimental to the effectiveness of your insulin.
Also proven is the fact that the biological response of target tissues to the actions of insulin (insulin sensitivity) are majorly affected by adiposity, or the amount of body fat one carries. 1
The leaner you are, the better your insulin will work. Period.
5 top tips for getting lean with diabetes:
- Create a calorie deficit by sensibly increasing your physical activity and reducing food intake in a controlled way.
- Strength train at least 4-5 times per week.
- Manage your diabetes.
- Achieve at least 7 hours sleep each night.
- Aim to lose between 0.5-1% of your body weight each week.
Daily Routine #3 – Have a Toolbox of De-Stressing Activities
In today’s modern day age, we are increasingly exposed to more chronic stress than ever before: mobile phones, social media, traffic, bills, etc.
Stress stimulates a flight or fight response within the body, a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. The body responds to stress by activating the sympathetic branch of the central nervous system. Stress increases muscle tone, constricts blood vessels, and increases the production of counterregulatory stress hormones which increase blood glucose.
In small doses stress is healthy. It can save your life.
However, excessive stress is unhealthy and works against diabetes management.2
The greater and more prolonged the stress, the more insulin is required to balance blood glucose. It is well established that stress can influence whole-body glucose metabolism and promote insulin resistance. 2,3
Any forms of stress management, like meditation, massage, yoga, breathing exercises, or personal development, are worthwhile if they help reduce stress. Reducing your daily stress is a surefire way to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce incidents of high blood glucose.
Even Apple have cottoned on to this with their new “take a minute to breathe” reminder on their Apple Watch.
Daily Routine #4 – Have a Structured Sleeping Plan
Sleep could also be considered a form of stress management, especially for individuals who are highly active and live with diabetes.
I hate to tell you the obvious, but sleep is essential for good health and diabetes management.
Many laboratory and epidemiological studies suggest that sleep loss may play a role in the increased prevalence of insulin resistance and diabetes.4,5,6,7
One of the best pieces of advice is to set a fixed bedtime and wake time. Not only does this provide structure for your day, but it ensures you get enough restorative sleep for health and optimal diabetes management.
Again, the major tech company Apple and their recent focus on health tech apps have included a set wake/bedtime function in their alarm clock.
At Diabetic Muscle and Fitness, we take sleep seriously. We even developed a 3.5+ hour video module on sleep optimization for improving hormone profiles and body composition.
Daily Routine #5 – Perform Aerobic Exercise Daily
Aerobic exercise such as a light jogging or a brisk walk can increase glucose disposal and lower blood glucose levels – independently of insulin.
One of the main reasons aerobic exercise lowers blood glucose levels so well is due to the fact that there is little to no counterregulatory hormone response like that which occurs during high-intensity anaerobic exercise.
Please bear in mind, it is important to monitor insulin intake around aerobic exercise in order to avoid hypoglycemia.
I highly recommend buying an activity monitor like a Fitbit, Apple Watch, or Garmin. These are awesome for building the habit of doing more aerobic exercise throughout your day.
Each and every daily routine I’ve shared in this article will improve insulin action and help your body clear glucose easier. Each and every one of these routines is a prerequisite for a great looking body and high levels of mental and physical performance.
Identify which areas you need to work on and get to it!
- Wilcox G. Insulin and insulin resistance. Clin Biochem Rev. 2005 May; 26(2):19-39.
- Li L et al. Acute psychological stress results in the rapid development of insulin resistance. J Endocrinol. 2013 Apr 15;217(2):175-84.
- Nolan et al. Insulin Resistance as a Physiological Defense Against Metabolic Stress: Implications for the Management of Subsets of Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Mar 2015, 64 (3) 673-686;
- Kripke DF, Garfinkel L, Wingard DL, Klauber MR, Marler MR. Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002;59:131–6.
- Ayas NT, White DP, Manson JE, et al. A prospective study of sleep duration and coronary heart disease in women. Arch Intern Med. 2003;163:205–9.
- Ip MS, Lam B, Ng MM, Lam WK, Tsang KW, Lam KS. Obstructive sleep apnea is independently associated with insulin resistance. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2002;165:670–6.
- Punjabi NM, Shahar E, Redline S, Gottlieb DJ, Givelber R, Resnick HE. Sleep-disordered breathing, glucose intolerance, and insulin resistance: the Sleep Heart Health Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2004;160:521–30.