July 25, 2018 0

The Benefits of High Intensity Interval Training for Blood Sugar Health

Posted by:Dr. Brian Mowll onJuly 25, 2018

Gone are the days of spending hours on a treadmill to slim down and get healthy. People today want their exercise programs to be shorter, more interesting, and offer better results. Enter programs like CrossFit and P90x.

CrossFit and P90x implement a type of exercise called high-intensity interval training (HIIT). What’s exciting about HIIT is that it’s been found to be more effective for weight loss and managing type 2 diabetes than basic cardiovascular exercise.

“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” – Plato

What Is HIIT Exactly?

HIIT has been getting a lot of attention in the clinical and scientific communities because of its ability to significantly improve various components of cardiometabolic health. That sounds great, but what IS the exercise exactly?

HIIT exercises like CrossFit involve alternating between vigorous exercises and periods of rest and recovery. Research studies have taken a look at various HIIT protocols, each involving different intensity levels and durations of these levels as well as the rest periods. Suffice it to say, trying to compare different HIIT workouts can prove quite challenging.

But what scientists can readily determine is that the inherent “on-off” pattern of HIIT protocols allows individuals to give it their all during the intense part because they have the ability to take much-needed breaks.  In addition, the intensity quickly expands conditioning and improves metabolic health.

Why HIIT is Great for Those with Type 2 Diabetes

Until recently few (if any) studies were done on the benefits of HIIT for diabetics. Studies had found that HIIT benefitted those with heart disease and high blood pressure. However, a fairly recent study reported that HIIT offered superior effects than moderate-intensity workouts for those with type 2 diabetes.

Even more interesting were findings that suggested that low-volume HIIT can lead to significant improvements in both cardiovascular and metabolic health. This is great news for people with diabetes because it means overall improved heath with less of a time commitment and lower total exercise volume. Given that most people say they simply don’t have the time to exercise, low-volume HIIT offers a great solution (AKA – no more excuses!).

One particular low-volume HIIT protocol has been shown to be very effective in patients with type 2 diabetes. The protocol involves 10 x 1-minute vigorous intensity efforts at ~90% maximal aerobic capacity interspersed with 1-minute rest periods. The study found that after two weeks, training this way only three times per week reduced 24-hour mean blood glucose in type 2 diabetes patients who had previously been very inactive.

Getting Started with HIIT

Now that you know how effective HIIT can be at helping you manage your diabetes (not to mention help you look and feel great), you’re probably wondering how to start incorporating it into your weekly fitness plan. The great thing about HIIT is that it’s very flexible and malleable. It could simply become a smart addition to your regular plan, or you could completely replace any moderate exercise you’re currently performing with HIIT.

While no one has yet said, “THIS is the most effective interval regimen,” what we do know is that intervals ranging from 10 seconds to 4 minutes at intensities of ≥70% of maximal aerobic capacity have been shown to be very effective in clinical populations. Of course, everyone’s fitness level is different, but it is recommended that individuals use a progression of interval duration, intensity, or number. Doing this isn’t difficult and could mean you simply add a few short periods of “picking up the pace” to your session.

I want to say it one more time because it bears repeating… the level of intensity should match your own personal fitness level. If you have type 2 diabetes, are over the age of 40, and have been fairly inactive for a number of years, you may find it safer and easier to start training with HIIT by simply picking up the pace of walking for 30-60 seconds every few minutes.

By contrast, someone who already exercises regularly may find they have to walk up hill briskly to achieve the same level of intensity.

Some common forms of HIIT exercise are:

Interval Training

I basically just described interval training. Interval training is simply alternating between periods of intense exercise and lighter exercise. So, while walking around your neighborhood, you might pick up the pace every few minutes for 30-60 seconds. If you’re in better shape, you might incorporate short bursts of jogging into your brisk walking.

Burst Training

Burst training is similar to interval training and involves exercising at 90–100% of your maximum heart rate for 30–60 seconds, followed by 30–60 seconds of lower intensity exercise or resting. This type of exercise is incredibly effective at burning fat. And, results can be seen by only exercising 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week.

Exercises that are great for bursts are running in place, jumping jacks, spinning, and jump rope.


Each exercise in a given Tabata workout lasts for only four minutes, but those four minutes might be grueling. Essentially, as with other HIIT exercises, you push yourself as hard as you can for a period, and then rest for a period, completing 8 repetitions.

An example of a Tabata workout looks like this:

  1. Push-ups (4 minutes) 
  2. Bodyweight Squats (4 minutes)
  3. Burpees (4 minutes)
  4. Mountain Climbers (4 minutes)

In between each completed set you rest for one minute.

Hopefully it’s obvious that you should speak with your doctor before starting an HIIT program. As I mentioned, even low-volume HIIT can be incredibly effective at helping you manage your blood sugar health. But even low-volume can still be too challenging for some people, depending on age, activity level, and any health complications due to diabetes. So, please, make an appointment with your doctor to make sure your body is ready to begin an HIIT program.


  1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/obr.12317/abstract
  2. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/36/2/228?ijkey=a24aa047443d1a192bb8ed5ef186534567c4dd8b&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha
  3. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/24509992

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