How Interval Walking Can Help You Manage Diabetes

Health Writer

Are you physically active? Your doctor has probably told you to do moderate exercise most days of the week because of your type 2 diabetes diagnosis. But if your daily walk hasn’t helped you lose weight or manage your blood-sugar levels, it may be time to switch to a new exercise regimen.

Research has shown that people with type 2 diabetes who regularly do interval walking – switching between slower- and faster-paced walking every few minutes for a set period of time – can help to improve their blood-sugar levels, lose weight (including belly fat), improve their physical fitness levels and lower their cholesterol levels. The same study found that people who walk one speed continuously (instead of speeding up and slowing down) saw no improvements to their blood-sugar levels, didn't lose weight, saw no changes to their physical fitness levels and saw slight increases (instead of decreases) to their cholesterol levels. Tweaking your continuous-walking routine to incorporate faster and slower intervals may result in improvements to your health.

“Our hypothesis [is] that the continuous walkers do not get a response because they perform exercise with an intensity that is too low, and that the higher intensity in the fast-walking intervals is what drives the improvements with interval walking,” said study author Kristian Karstoft, MD, in an email interview with HealthCentral.

Some research shows that fewer than one-third of people with diabetes exercise regularly, even though regular physical activity can improve blood-sugar levels and reduce diabetes complications. Interval walking is easy to master, even among people who are sedentary or overweight. It can help you focus on your pace and your exercise goals, instead of mindlessly strolling around the neighborhood at a slower pace than you likely intend to walk.

If you want to try interval walking, this is what experts recommend:

Check with your doctor first

Before you begin an interval walking program, get your doctor’s go-ahead to begin this type of physical activity. And if you take insulin, it’s wise to check in with your doctor once you establish an interval-walking routine.

“Interval-exercise regimens can profoundly impact insulin sensitivity, putting some patients at risk for hypoglycemia – low blood sugar – if their medications are not adjusted or appropriate measures are taken to keep the sugar in a safe range following physical activity,” said Joshua Miller, MD, in an email interview with HealthCentral.

Monitor your speed

Pay attention to your breathing to gauge your pace, especially when you’re starting out.

“If at any point you are short of breath or you find it difficult to talk, you’re working too hard and should back off to an intensity just below that,” said American Council on Exercise spokesperson Sabrena Jo, in an email interview with HealthCentral.

Don’t break into a jog or run during the fast intervals, but push yourself to walk briskly when you speed up. During the slower intervals, allow yourself to recover.

“The fast intervals should, as a rule of thumb, be so fast that having a conversation is unpleasant,” Karstoft said. “It should, however, be possible to give short answers to questions. The slow intervals should be so slow that they feel easy to complete, as they should allow recovery for the upcoming fast intervals.”

Personalize the length of your intervals

Although many interval-walking studies have examined 3-minute intervals, research has also shown that 1-minute intervals are also effective at lowering blood-sugar levels. Intervals that are 1, 2, 3 or 4 minutes long should be fine, but longer intervals aren’t recommended.

“There is no reason to believe that there is anything ‘magic’ about 3-minute intervals,” Karstoft said. “[But] intervals longer than 5 minutes would, for many persons, probably result in too-low intensities in the fast intervals.”

Start with just a few intervals

Several studies have shown that 60 minutes of interval walking has positive health benefits. If you haven’t done this type of exercise before, don’t aim for an hour of intervals on your first try.

“I would recommend that patients repeat the 3-minute slow/fast cycle just 3 to 4 times to begin,” said Thomas Solomon, PhD, in an email interview with HealthCentral. “Slowly increase the number of cycles by one every week until they can complete 10 cycles, which equals 60 minutes total work.”

Track your progress

One of the things that’s nice about interval walking is that you don’t need special equipment. You can easily time your intervals with a stopwatch or timer, but if you prefer, you can use an app designed to track fast and slow intervals or rely on a treadmill interval-walking program.

“Whereas some people would be motivated by a stopwatch telling them when to walk fast and slow, others would be motivated by a treadmill telling them their actual speed,” Karstoft said.

Incorporate interval walking in your daily schedule

You may not have time for an hour of interval walking every day, and that’s okay. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week to reap substantial health benefits, which is equal to roughly 22 minutes daily.

“Exercise in patients with diabetes is never ‘all or nothing,’” Miller said. “If someone can’t find the time to devote 60 minutes a day to exercise, of course 30 – or even 15 – minutes of increased physical activity a few times a week can have a profoundly positive impact on health and well-being.”

Shorter bouts of interval walking are likely to have health benefits, too.

“Whereas we have not done any formal studies, my personal guess is that 30 minutes of interval walking a day would produce solid improvements in cardiovascular risk factors,” Karstoft said, “albeit probably not as beneficial as with 60 minutes per day, as long as the fast-interval intensities are high enough.”

See more helpful articles:

Why a Brisk Walk Is So Good for Diabetes Control

How Exercise Helps Control Diabetes

Walking Equals Running for Heart and Diabetes Healthh