How To Optimize Your Post-Meal Walk So It Helps Regulate Blood Sugar
Taking a walk after eating is something many of us do out of sheer instinct or habit. We feel a little too full, want to stretch our legs, or find we can avoid a post-meal energy slump if we get some steps in.
But in recent years, science has uncovered some legitimate health benefits to walking after eating, especially when it comes to staving off a blood sugar spike and crash following a high-carb or sugar-filled meal.
But we have so many questions: How long do we have to walk to get the benefits? How fast? And how soon after we eat? We sat down with L.J. Amaral M.S., RDN, CSO, a registered dietitian, researcher, and expert in metabolic therapy, to get all those questions answered.
First, some background on blood sugar.
About 1 in 10 adults1 in the United States has diabetes, and an additional 96 million—1 in 3 adults1 in the U.S.—have prediabetes. Unhealthy blood sugar levels are connected to diseases like Alzheimer's, obesity2, anxiety disorders, chronic fatigue3, and infertility in both men and women. And blood sugar isn't just about diabetes; it's about overall health and wellness.
Knowing all that, it's clear why more and more people are monitoring their blood sugar levels throughout the day and testing interventions to keep them healthy. Continuous glucose monitors (small devices that use a sensor placed right under the skin to measure blood sugar and send that information to your phone or another device) have soared in popularity among people who do not have diabetes but want to understand how their diet, lifestyle, stress, and activities like a post-meal walk affect their blood sugar.
Most of the advice related to blood sugar focuses on diet. Often, it has to do with what you should not eat to avoid spikes: soda, fruit juice, refined carbs, pasta, crackers, cookies, etc. This might be one reason that the post-meal walk is so appealing. It's a healthy habit that you can add to your routine, instead of yet another unhealthy thing to avoid. And even more importantly, it's a way to minimize the damage when you do eat blood-sugar-spiking foods, which we all will at some point.
How can a post-meal walk help stabilize blood sugar?
Walking after eating seems to help blood sugar in a number of different ways. After we eat there is an abundance of glucose in our bloodstream, Amaral explains.
"When you are walking and active after a meal, the demand for energy [which glucose provides] goes toward your many organs and tissues, but especially the muscles," she says. And because the demand for glucose4 in your muscles is higher when you walk than when you sit, glucose uptake is higher when you are moving. Any type of physical exercise5 will increase your muscle glucose uptake, but walking tends to be the easiest to do right after a meal when blood sugar tends to be the most elevated.
According to Amaral, a similar process happens in your heart and other key organs. "Energy or sugar will be required for your heart to pump blood around your body/tissues more efficiently, creating more of a shunt for glucose to go toward the heart instead of staying in the bloodstream if you were to be sedentary," she says.
According to Amaral, this can help control a blood sugar spike and reduce one's risk of insulin resistance. "The demand [for glucose] is also rapid, so instead of requiring insulin for glucose to enter the cell (think of insulin as the key to unlock the cell to let glucose in to provide energy), no insulin is required."
And again, it's not just walking that has blood-sugar-balancing benefits. "Any light-moderate exercise could work! Swimming is great for those with gait instability, yoga, biking, tai chi, gardening, Pilates, and moderate housework," Amaral adds.
Ways to optimize your walk.
So, how quickly after eating should you walk to maximize the benefits? Amaral recommends getting moving within 30 minutes of wrapping up your meal. However, she adds, a 2016 review of 39 studies suggests that exercising anywhere between 30 minutes and 120 minutes after eating is ideal—with positive health effects present even six hours post-meal.
When it comes to intensity, the study showed that light-intensity walking can support blood sugar health, but Amaral recommends trying to reach a moderate aerobic pace through brisk walking. "Moderate-intensity exercise is considered effective when you can hold a conversation but cannot sing," she explains.
And as for how long you should stay moving, one meta-analysis published last year in the journal Sports Medicine6 found that walking for as little as two to five minutes is enough to positively affect blood sugar levels.
Beyond helping with blood sugar, research shows that breaking up long periods of sitting can also reduce blood pressure. Walking has also been associated with increased longevity overall—with one study finding that 10 minutes of brisk walking per day can make your telomeres (important markers of cellular aging) look up to 16 years younger7.
What are the limitations of walking for blood sugar balance?
Naturally, any cookie, bread, or soda lover in the room is going to be wondering: Does this mean I can eat whatever I want, as long as I walk after? Does walking actually reduce all the negative effects of sugar, or just some? Essentially: Are there limits?
According to Amaral: "Walking is quite effective for lowering blood sugar with a normal intake of macronutrients, but the breadth of its blood-sugar-lowering benefits is all dependent on the load, or amount of sugar, taken in, and other nutrients consumed at the same time."
As she explains it, if you're getting a massive influx of sugar—for example, you drink a Coca-Cola on an empty stomach, which delivers 30 grams of sugar straight to your bloodstream—a post-meal walk isn't going to be as effective. If you sipped the soda with a source of protein, healthy fat, or fiber, though, you'll experience less of a spike. "The fibers help to blunt the response of glucose by taking longer to cleave, digest and absorb," Amaral says. Looking to pair your treats wisely? Here are a few foods that are high in fiber and the best fiber supplements for blood sugar balance.
Of course, even the best post-meal walk won't totally erase the negative consequences of high sugar intake. "It will not completely negate the adverse effects of eating sugars and processed foods, though, especially as they can still activate pro-inflammatory pathways," Amaral says.
She also points out that everyone has a slightly different metabolic response to food. (She's had patients follow the exact same diet and still have massive variations in their blood sugars.) One study suggests that factors like gut microbiome composition and individualized labs could determine how you respond to exercise after a meal.
In the future, we might be able to use AI to predict bio-individual glucose responses. For now, though, we can study how our bodies respond to different foods by noticing how we feel after meals or watching out for these signs of a blood sugar spike. Continuous glucose monitors can also provide more granular data on blood sugar fluctuations and how they change with exercise.
A post-meal walk is a pretty powerful tool for better blood sugar health, especially after a meal that is likely to spike blood sugar. To get the most benefit, wait 30 minutes, walk at a light-to-moderate pace, and focus on getting more healthy fats, protein, and fiber into every meal.
Gretchen Lidicker is an mbg health contributor, content strategist, and the author of CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Hemp-Derived Health and Wellness and Magnesium Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Epsom Salts, Magnesium Oil, and Nature's Relaxation Mineral. She holds a B.S. in biology and earned her master’s degree in physiology with a concentration in complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University.