Our Paleolithic ancestors had to sprint to survive; to fend off predators or to hunt their prey. The “fight or flight” response (and thus sprinting) is one of our most primal survival mechanisms. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Today, we’ve unfortunately outsourced most of our daily movement to cars, trains, and escalators, and we remain sedentary most of the day. Our bodies adapted to this frequent high-intensity fight or flight response and may very well have learned to need it. Today, most people simply don’t get enough movement in their day and it comes at a steep cost for your health.
Over 400 million people around the world suffer from type-2 diabetes (T2D) and almost 50% of the current population in America is classified as pre-diabetic or diabetic [1,2]. While the standard American diet – calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, hyper-palatable processed foods – is an overwhelming culprit, physical inactivity also has a key role . A recent 10-year follow-up study of intensive lifestyle modifications – which included regular exercise – lowered the incidence of diabetes (type-2) by 34% in high–risk adults, which was twice as effective as the standard metformin drug therapy [4 ].
Movement is an integral part of a Paleo lifestyle. If moderate intensity exercise supports improved blood sugar control, how would high-intensity movements like sprinting impact glycemic control? Children spend their days running around the house or playing games, yet as we get older we lose connection with this fundamental primal movement.
Can sprinting help to reverse type-2 diabetes? Interestingly, a growing body of research has investigated the effects of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on T2D. (Note – Sprinting falls under the banner of HIIT training, as do sprints on a bike, Tabata-style workouts, etc.)
HIIT & Diabetes (Type-2)
The term high-intensity can scare people off, but the good news is that it’s relative to your own fitness level. For example, a recent study examined the effects of HIIT training (10 sets @60s x3 weekly) over eight weeks in 50-year old, non-active type-2 diabetics versus healthy controls. Researchers found the diabetic group significantly improved glucose control and insulin sensitivity, as well as pancreatic beta-cell function, and experienced significant loses in pro-inflammatory abdominal adiposity . Post-menopausal women with T2D engaging in two sessions per week over 16 weeks (with no concomitant caloric reduction) experienced more significant reductions in belly-fat compared to traditional steady-state cardio . Even just two weeks of HIIT training showed positive health benefits for people with T2D and improvements in insulin resistance from pre- to post-training period .
A recent meta-analysis of over 50 studies found a superior reduction in insulin resistance following HIIT compared to both control and steady-state training. Although it should be noted that continuous aerobic training is still highly effective at reducing insulin resistance. It has demonstrated results that are comparable to HIIT. It just requires a much greater time commitment. Another meta-analysis concluded… “exercise at higher intensity may offer superior fitness benefits and… optimize reductions in HbA1C% (a 3-month average of blood sugar control)” [8,9,10].
HIIT & Diabetes (Type-2) Risk Factors
Type-2 diabetics are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The first study that was able to demonstrate improvements in cardiac structure and function, along with the greatest reduction in liver fat. It used HIIT training (2-3-minute intervals x5 over 12 weeks). The authors concluded, “HIIT should be considered by clinical care teams as a therapy to improve cardiometabolic risk in patients with type 2 diabetes” .
HIIT & Time Efficiency
It looks like HIIT training may provide an effective strategy for reversing T2D, but the question remains; how do you get people to stick with it? Most people know exercise is good for them, but they decide (often subconsciously) not to engage in it.
Why? The number one reason is people say they “don’t have time.” No problem, HIIT training provides the perfect solution.
Dr. Martin Gibala PhD, a world-renown expert in HIIT from McMaster University in Canada, recently compared the benefits of 3 minutes of exercise per week (yes… 3 minutes for the entire week!) versus the traditional recommendations of 150 minutes per week of exercise on fitness. His research team found that the HIIT group improved their fitness to the same degree as the continuous aerobic group after the 12-week intervention . Looks like time is no longer an excuse (everyone has 3 minutes per week).
Sprinting is a fundamental primal movement. It’s deeply ingrained in our DNA, performed effortlessly when we’re children and the research supports its use (i.e HIIT) as an effective strategy for helping to reverse T2D symptoms and reduce cardiovascular disease risk. HIIT is time efficient, highly rewarding and best of all… it’s fun!
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11. Cassidy, S et al. High intensity intermittent exercise improves cardiac structure and function and reduces liver fat in patients with type 2 diabetes: a randomised controlled trial. Diabetologia 2016; 59(1): 56–66.
12. Gillen J et al. Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment. PlosONE April 26, 2016