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Why Does Exercise Control My Diabetes? Part 1

Why Does Exercise Control My Diabetes? Part 1

Exercise is the single most powerful weapon that humans have against chronic disease.  Insulin resistance and diabetes are classic examples of conditions that can be controlled and even prevented by frequent exercise.

While both exercise and nutrition are important aspects of an overall lifestyle change, exercise is more effective than nutrition at promoting overall health.  I like to think of it as a 70-30 split.  Frequent exercise is 70% of the game, nutrition is the remaining 30%.  What this means is that if you suffer from obesity/insulin resistance/diabetes, improve your fitness program FIRST, and your diet SECOND

But Cyrus, if I adopt either an exercise or a fitness regimen but not both, will it help?  Certainly.  But choose wisely.  In isolation, both a healthy diet and exercise are remarkably effective in creating a state of health.  Together, the effects are incredible.

I understand that you may not like to hear this.

  • You are allowed to dislike exercise.

  • You are allowed to dislike the act of sweating.

  • You are allowed to dislike breathing hard.

Just know that the effects of exercise on your body are so profound, it would take an encyclopedia to explain how it affects each tissue in the human body.  Whether you choose to adopt an exercise regimen for your long term health is your choice.  Just know the facts.

The effects of exercise on muscle tissue

Muscle is the largest tissue in the human body by mass.  In other words, if you were to weigh each tissue in your body separately, you might come up with something like this:

Muscle tissue is a very plastic tissue, meaning that the size, shape and metabolic characteristics are highly changeable.  Compare this against a tissue like bone which is characteristically rigid.  Once fully formed, bone is not likely to grow or change shape.  The fact that muscle is plastic is what allows athletes to sculpt muscular bodies over time by sustained muscle growth, and what causes frailty in old age by sustained muscle loss.

Muscle is one of the most plastic tissues in the human body.  Proper exercise training will sculpt the tissue physically and positively affect it's metabolic function.

Simply stated, developing and maintaining healthy muscle tissue is one of your best defenses against most chronic disease.  Frequently exercised (and adequately stretched) muscle tissue gets incredibly hungry for fuel, and it is this very process of depletion-and-fueling that creates metabolically active muscle tissue.  Let’s see how this works.

Exercise increases mitochondrial content in muscle tissue

Mitochondria are the tiny energy factories present in practically all cells in tissues across the body, and are highly prevalent in muscle tissue.  Their purpose is to provide energy for the cell in the form of ATP, using mainly glucose and fatty acids as energy sources.  Frequent exercise stimulates the mitochondrial compartment within the cell to grow, in order to generate MORE energy during the next exercise bout.

Exercise depletes muscle tissue of it’s two stored fuels: glucose and fatty acids

Glucose is stored in the muscle tissue in the form of glycogen, and fatty acids are stored as triglyceride (tri-glis-er-ride).  Both fuels are stored “on board” in the muscle tissue because it allows contracting muscle fibers to utilize these fuels for energy during exercise without having to depend on other tissues to deliver them.

An Analogy: Think of Muscle Tissue as a Car with Two Fuel Tanks

Imagine you drive a 21st century car that has two fuel tanks.  One tank contains orange juice, and can hold 15 gallons.  The second tank contains coffee (caffeinated), and can hold 2 gallons.

Orange Juice:

The OJ is clearly the more plentiful of the two fuels, and is able to power your car for hundreds of miles.  Your car is tuned to operate on this fuel for long distances, and does so by “sipping” OJ efficiently.


Coffee in the second tank has a very specific purpose: to provide FAST acceleration.  Every time you accelerate out of a stop light, coffee is selected as the fuel of choice on the fly, and provides a quick high-power boost for a short period of time.  Once a constant speed is attained, the car automatically switches back to OJ.  Note that because coffee is used for short periods of time simply to accelerate the car in times of need, the size of this tank can be quite small.

In the same way that your car selects fuels on the fly, actively exercising muscle tissue is constantly selecting the proper fuel on a second-by-second basis based on the intensity of exercise.  In high intensity “anaerobic” settings (sprints, intervals, fast movements, powerful movements), glycogen is preferentially oxidized because it provides energy very quickly.  This is your muscle’s “caffeinated beverage.”  In lower intensity situations (long distance or constant speed movements such as running/biking/swimming/hiking etc), fatty acids are preferentially oxidized for energy because they can provide sustained energy for long periods of time.  This is your muscle’s version of OJ.

In these two videos above, think of whether these athletes are breaking down glycogen or fatty acids to perform their events.

The truth is, both glycogen and fatty acids are being broken down at ALL times for energy.  Both fuels are in use at every second of every day, however the proportion of fatty acids vs. glycogen depends on the intensity and duration of your exercise session.  This means that if your exercise program calls for running at a steady pace, fatty acids will be consumed more than glycogen.  Similarly, if you prefer high intensity athletics, and perform a series of sprints, glycogen will be consumed more than fatty acids.

Protein is also an important consideration during exercise

Your muscle tissue is constructed mainly of protein-rich fibers that form the infrastructure of the muscle tissue.  Like we established above, glycogen and fatty acids are the two primary fuel sources during exercise.  Because protein is the structural component of the muscle tissue, your body does a great job of sparing it’s use during exercise unless required to do so in dire situations following long duration exercise such as ultramarathons and long distance aerobic events.  Most of us never achieve this point, which means that protein is generally not broken down for energy during exercise of moderate or high intensity exercise.  Instead, the protein that forms the muscle tissue undergoes hundreds to thousands of contraction/elongation cycles which results in micro “tears” that require re-stitching during the recovery period.  It is important to note that exercise stimulates the micro-breakdown of muscle tissue, and only during the recovery process is the synthesis of new protein achieved.

So what does this have to do with controlling my risk for chronic disease?  Read more…

Photo credit: SuperFantastic / / CC BY

About The Author

Cyrus Khambatta

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 22, I have spent over a decade learning the fundamentals of nutrition at the doctorate level. My goal is to share my knowledge of practical nutrition and fitness with people with prediabetes, type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is an OPPORTUNITY to attain excellent health. Reversing the effects of insulin resistance can be a fun and enjoyable process if the right system is in place. That's why I've spent over 10 years developing a rock solid system that can minimize blood glucose variability and insulin resistance.

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