Anaerobic Training and Diabetes
Anaerobic training can make it easier to manage your diabetes. Discover what it is and how to do it
Safety Note: Check with your health care provider before starting or changing your exercise plan.
You know all about aerobic exercise. Every time you walk, dance, or ride a bike, you’re doing it. And you likely know all about the benefits: Aerobic exercise improves heart health, increases your metabolism, aids weight loss, lowers your blood pressure, increases your HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and boosts your mood.
It’s particularly beneficial for people with diabetes. It can lower your blood glucose during a workout and for up to 24 hours after. “As you do it more, your body becomes better at burning glucose, and your insulin sensitivity increases,” says Jacqueline Shahar, MEd, RCEP, CDE, a clinical exercise physiologist and manager of the Clinical Exercise Physiology Department at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
The American Diabetes Association’s 2020 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. But what about vigorous activity?
When you push yourself to your highest effort level, you switch from aerobic to what’s known as anaerobic exercise. During the former, oxygen is able to get to your muscles (hence the “aero” in aerobic), but not with the latter. “Any physical activity performed at an intensity that does not allow sufficient oxygen delivery to muscles is anaerobic,” explains exercise physiologist Gary Scheiner, MS, CDE, owner and clinical director of Integrated Diabetes Services in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
Here’s how—and why—you should incorporate both forms of exercise into your routine. (Spoiler alert: You may already be doing it.)
The Fuel You Use
Oxygen isn’t the only difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Your body also powers them differently. When you’re working aerobically (such as when you walk on a treadmill), fat and glucose provide energy. Move anaerobically—as you would during a sprint—and the body pulls glycogen (a form of glucose) from the muscles to be used for fuel. The depleted glycogen stores and buildup of lactic acid during high-intensity anaerobic exercise are part of why the activity can make your muscles so tired.
Like aerobic exercise, anaerobic burns calories and improves your cardiovascular health, insulin sensitivity, and blood glucose management. There’s a big difference for your muscles, though: “Anaerobic exercise also improves power and builds muscle strength and mass,” says Karen Kemmis, PT, RN, CDE, a certified diabetes educator and physical therapist at the Joslin Diabetes Center at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York.
You may notice your blood glucose rise for up to an hour with intense activity, due to the initial stress of pushing your body hard, but don’t worry. “This is more than offset by the improvements in insulin sensitivity and other benefits derived from anaerobic exercise,” says Scheiner. Case in point: A study published in 2013 in the journal Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome, and Obesity: Targets and Therapy shows that blood glucose levels stay lower for a longer period of time following anaerobic exercise than they do after an aerobic session.
How can you tell when you’ve switched from one form of exercise to the other? When you’re exercising aerobically, you can keep going for a longer period than you can with anaerobic exercise. “Anaerobic exercise is intense, and you can only perform it for a short time,” says Kemmis.
If you work out regularly, you’re incorporating anaerobic exercise into your sessions—even if you don’t realize it. “With any form of physical activity, there will be some aerobic and anaerobic component,” says Scheiner. This is especially true of sports that combine less-vigorous activity with sprints, such as basketball and tennis.
The Right Moves
Weight lifting is a smart way for people of any fitness level to include anaerobic exercise in their routine. “Resistance training improves blood glucose control and helps the body use insulin more efficiently,” says Kemmis. “It also decreases fat mass, increases muscle mass, and improves strength.” The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes perform two or three resistance-training sessions per week.
To add more anaerobic exercise to your cardio sessions, try what’s known as high-intensity interval training. (Get your doctor’s OK first!) The method involves alternating longer periods of physical activity done at a moderate intensity with short bursts (often less than a minute) at a vigorous intensity. For example, walk or jog at a comfortable pace for three to five minutes, move as fast as you can for 30 to 60 seconds, then repeat two or three times. Gradually increase the time you spend during your workout alternating your intensity as opposed to moving at a steady effort level.
“As you do more of those intervals, your body adapts, and they become easier,” says Shahar. Research shows that working out like this improves your fitness level faster than moving at a moderate intensity for a longer time.
What’s more, high-intensity interval exercise may be particularly beneficial for people with diabetes. An analysis of studies published in 2015 in Obesity Reviews found that blood glucose levels are significantly lower in people with type 2 diabetes following a high-intensity workout than they are after a steady-intensity session. And these types of workouts may save you time, too. Research published in a 2017 issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that high-intensity workouts of just 18 to 27 minutes improve insulin sensitivity and how efficiently your body processes glucose as well as moderate sessions lasting twice as long.
The Fit Formula
However you get anaerobic exercise—high-intensity bursts of activity, weight lifting, or both—one thing is clear: It can boost the health benefits of your aerobic workout. If you’re physically able, try to add anaerobic activity to your exercise plan.