For all humans, it's normal for blood sugar to rise and fall throughout the day. In most cases, our bodies can ride the wave: When blood sugar is high, the pancreas secretes insulin. This insulin alerts the body to soak up the glucose in the blood, lowering blood sugar and using that sugar for energy now or storing it in the liver as glycogen to use later.
For people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance can begin to throw this system out of whack. But whether you have diabetes or not, it's beneficial to keep blood sugar levels within a consistent range.
"Even-keeled blood sugar keeps our energy levels in check and more balanced. When we experience a rapid spike, say, after consuming a sugar cookie, we will likely experience a crash afterward too," says Roxana Ehsani, RD, CSSD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In its early stages, Cleveland Clinic health experts explain, high blood sugar can lead to increased hunger (to counteract that drained-energy feeling), blurred vision, headache and frequent trips to the bathroom. In more severe cases, hyperglycemia can trigger vomiting, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dehydration, confusion and more.
Luckily, there are some simple, science-backed steps (literally) that we can take to help our bodies steady the sugar seesaw. A short walk, anywhere from two to five minutes, is enough to result in lower blood sugar levels after a meal, according to a February 2022 meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine. Even standing up, versus sitting or lying down, is enough to move the needle, but walking is a no-sweat way to step up the blood sugar benefits even more, they found.
Read on for more about why this is true, plus other expert-approved ways to maintain a sweeter blood sugar balance.
How Does Walking Help Lower Blood Sugar?
To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers crunched the numbers from the results of seven previous studies that analyzed how light physical activities (or not)—sitting, standing and walking—impact biomarkers that relate to heart health. These included insulin and blood sugar levels.
"When you eat a meal, your body starts breaking down carbohydrates into blood sugar," explains Angie Asche, M.S., RD, CSSD, a registered dietitian and owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition in Lincoln, Nebraska. "Walking and other forms of exercise help to increase insulin sensitivity, essentially making our bodies more efficient at managing our blood sugar."
Our muscles ask our bodies for fuel to power the walking, which leads to a decrease in blood sugar levels, Asche adds.
These results are particularly important for people living with diabetes, but as we noted above, minimizing blood sugar spikes and crashes can be beneficial for all of us, confirms Michelle Cardel, Ph.D., M.S., RD, the senior director of global clinical research and nutrition at WW (WeightWatchers).
"Even among those who do not have diabetes, exposure to chronic high levels of blood sugar can increase risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes down the road," Cardel says. "However, for those living with diabetes, it' especially important to manage their blood sugar and try to keep levels within the recommended, individualized target range. Going too high or too low can impact physical functioning and cause other health complications like eye, kidney or nerve damage or disease progression.
The American Diabetes Association says that a single bout of exercise can lower blood sugar for up to 24 hours after completion, although this certainly depends on intensity and duration. (One meta-analysis says that 7½ minutes of high-intensity activity might be enough to help balance blood sugar for one to three days post-sweat sesh!)
Still, no matter how long those blood sugar benefits last, "When we exercise at any level, it actually can help both our blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity," Ehsani says. Even for just a couple of minutes. "It's almost like free medication for anyone who has diabetes, as it helps lower one's blood sugar naturally. Exercise like walking also increases insulin sensitivity, which means it allows the body to use glucose more effectively, thus lowering blood sugar levels."
For the biggest health benefits, aim to walk within 60 to 90 minutes after you finish a meal; this is when blood sugar levels tend to peak, Cardel says. This could be a walk around the block, a quick stroll around the office after lunch, or taking a phone call on-the-go. Walking—or even standing if you're chained to your desk or can't sneak out of commitments no matter where you are—requires your body to activate more muscles than when sitting or lying down. These muscles, in turn, ask for energy from the food you just ate and help escort the sugar out of your bloodstream.
Beyond the blood sugar impact, "Walking is one of the easiest ways to support your health," Asche adds. "There are so many benefits to walking beyond just what this study shows. It can boost mood, improve cardiovascular health and strengthen bones and muscles, too."
And the great news is, this study proves you definitely don't need to be training for a marathon—or even a 5K—to access the advantages of exercise. (That said, when you're ready to step things up, here's your easy 6-part plan to go from slow walk to serious workout.)
Other Ways to Manage Blood Sugar Levels
Beyond sneaking in a short walk about an hour to 90 minutes after a meal, here are other ways to balance your blood sugar:
Build meals and snacks wisely. "If you're having a meal or snack containing carbohydrates, it's a good idea to also pair this with protein and healthy fats," Asche says. Protein and fat tend to digest at slower rates and promote higher levels of satisfaction after a meal than carbs.
Consume a slow-digesting (aka complex) carb at each meal. Eating more whole-food nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources that are high in fiber can improve blood sugar control, Cardel says. Compared to refined carbs like white sugar or flour, a carbohydrate that's rich in dietary fiber takes longer to digest and will provide the body and bloodstream with a slower release of energy (glucose) over time, Ehsani explains. Aim to add one serving of complex carbs to every meal. (P.S. Here are 12 foods with more fiber than an apple.)
Limit added sugars. Be mindful of sugar-sweetened beverages and juices, baked goods and purchased products with sweeteners like condiments and fruit-flavored yogurt, which have the potential to increase blood sugar, Cardel adds. Discover the top 7 sources of added sugars in the typical American diet, plus how to cut back on sneaky added sugars.
The Bottom Line
Walking, or even standing, for two to five minutes within an hour or two after a meal can have a significant impact on blood sugar, research proves. Our body's muscles demand more energy, which is available via the just-consumed glucose, and this helps keep the level of sugar in the bloodstream more steady throughout the day.
Beyond moving for a few minutes after you have a meal or snack, eating a fiber-rich, well-balanced and whole-foods-focused diet can aid in blood sugar balance as well. Start shifting your diet in delicious, balanced-energy ways with these 29 recipes to help keep blood sugar in check.