When we think of exercise, we tend to think of traditional activities like jogging, biking, or swimming. But recent research has discovered that a different type of exercise, high-intensity interval training, also known as HIIT, may be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes.

What is HIIT?

HIIT is a style of exercise composed of short intervals of high-intensity exercise followed by short periods of rest. Sometimes these rest periods are longer than the exercise time. For example, you may have 30 seconds of sprinting followed by 90 seconds of rest.

(In fact, Diabetes.co.uk suggests that those with diabetes just beginning HIIT should exercise for 30 seconds and rest for 90 seconds in all their HIIT training.)

The short intervals of intense exercise are meant to help you reach your estimated maximum heart rate, meaning the number of times your heart beats per minute without overexertion. Your breathing should also become deeper as you perform the high-intensity exercise and you should tire your body, making the recovery period important and desired.

HIIT can be adapted to any sort of activity. For example, if you like swimming, try swimming two laps as fast as you can and resting for a minute and then doing it again. HIIT can also be adjusted to your personal fitness level; take it slow and steady and you will see yourself improving in pace and ability.

On Quality Health, Amber Taylor, MD, voiced the importance of taking it slow, especially for those new to exercise. “Patients should listen to their bodies and start slowly. Even if you were an athlete in the past, this doesn’t mean you can start running straight away. It is better to do something lighter, for a shorter duration, but do it every day. Your goal should be 30 minutes of exercise daily most days of the week.”

Since it is so adaptable, HIIT is great for people with chronic health conditions who might have a different pace than those without a condition.

The benefits of HIIT

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, people who engage in HIIT burn more calories than they do in a traditional, continuous workout.

Also, the total exercise time is typically shorter with HIIT, allowing those with busy schedules to get a full workout in while still managing daily responsibilities. In essence, HIIT gives you more bang for your buck.

HIIT may also have other health benefits like helping improve blood pressure, cardiovascular health, cholesterol, and reducing abdominal fat and overall body weight.

HIIT and diabetes management

Recent small studies have suggested that HIIT improves blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes more than traditional continuous exercising. It also improves insulin sensitivity without lowering the insulin secretion from the cells in the pancreas.

One study found that either two hours of HIIT over two weeks or one hour of HIIT a week improved the insulin sensitivity in men and women who were sedentary and overweight. This study was lead by Martin Gibala, PhD, who has been studying HIIT since 2005. He found that with six HIIT workouts and two hours of time, volunteers participating in his program had improved glucose. When asked by Precision Nutrition how well his older and overweight participants with type 2 diabetes handle the high intensity of HIIT, he responded, “Very well. And to date we haven’t had a single dropout.”

He added that older people with type 2 diabetes seem to enjoy HIIT more than moderate exercise and improve quickly. He noted that there is no reason to completely throw out continuous exercise but says HIIT is an appealing alternative.

Researchers have yet to discover how HIIT improves glycemic control, and they’re not sure if the results from these small studies justify recommending it to the whole type 2 diabetes population.

But it doesn’t hurt to ask your doctor about starting HIIT exercises. Starting a new form of exercise when you have a chronic health condition should always be done under the supervision of your primary healthcare professional.

To learn more about exercise and type 2 diabetes:

You've Just Been Diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes: Now What?
The Best Types of Exercise for People with Diabetes
Fitness Jumpstarts Kidney Health For Type 2 Diabetes