Walking has been called the “superfood” of exercise because of all the wonderful things it does for our bodies.
Now there’s another benefit to add to the list: Walking for just two to five minutes after a meal can help prevent a big blood sugar spike after eating, a review of studies has found.
Standing can help, too — anything to break up prolonged periods of sitting — but light-intensity walking was the “superior physical activity break,” researchers reported in the journal Sports Medicine.
Walking after meals is just another simple habit people can add to their routine to be healthier, said Lisa Young, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York and author of "Finally Full, Finally Slim."
“If you have to start with one meal, do it after dinner when you tend to be the least active,” Young, who was not involved in the new study, told TODAY.
“People get overwhelmed because they think healthy living is so complicated, (but) every little step helps: sleeping regularly, managing stress, walking, eating more vegetables — it all is part of the puzzle.”
Managing blood sugar
Blood sugar rises after eating carbohydrates, so the body releases insulin to lower blood sugar. But the glucose can end up staying high in people who have insulin resistance, Young said.
For Americans with diabetes, it’s important to manage blood sugar levels to help prevent serious health problems, such as heart disease, vision loss and kidney disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned.
But even healthy people can have diabetic-level glucose spikes after eating, a 2018 study found.
When prolonged, these spikes can contribute to cardiovascular disease risk and a person’s tendencies to develop insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes, said Michael Snyder, professor of genetics at Stanford University and senior author of the study, in a statement.
Muscles are important for controlling blood sugar levels, so when people don’t move, this process doesn’t work as effectively, Keith Diaz, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, previously told TODAY.
A quarter of Americans sit for more than eight hours a day and 40% get no exercise during the week, according to a study published in JAMA.
Walking after dinner
That’s where walking after a meal might help. The new analysis looked at seven studies that measured how interrupting prolonged sitting with frequent standing and light walking breaks affected cardiometabolic health. These studies asked participants to take two- to five-minute “sedentary breaks” every 20 to 30 minutes.
After reviewing the results, researchers found that both standing and light-intensity walking improved blood sugar metabolism after eating compared to prolonged sitting after a meal. But a short walk had a “significantly greater” effect than standing, the authors wrote.
“It makes sense that the muscle contraction and getting the muscles going shortly after you walk could prevent that rise in the blood sugar after you eat,” Young said about the findings.
“I think it’s any exercise that gets the muscles going and it gets the heart rate up.”
Walking is probably the easiest and most convenient exercise for most people, so Young recommended keeping walking shoes in view to serve as a reminder to take a quick walk within 30 minutes to an hour after a meal.
That’s especially key after dinner, traditionally the biggest meal of the day and the meal after which people often watch TV for hours without moving much, then go to sleep, she noted.
If a person absolutely has no time for a quick stroll after eating, then walking up and down a flight of stairs or walking on a treadmill for a few minutes could also be effective, Young said.
Any movement is better than eating a big dinner and then sitting for hours afterwards. “It could probably also help manage weight at the same time,” she noted.