While a short walk after a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, stuffing and pie isn't likely to offset the calories, it can go a long way in helping your body handle the excess carbohydrates from the meal, says a University of Georgia researcher.
Nathan T. Jenkins, an assistant professor in the UGA College of Education's department of kinesiology, says a walk after a large, carb-heavy meal such as Thanksgiving—even something as simple as taking the dog for a stroll after dinner—will help your body better process glucose in your blood and bring it back down to normal levels faster. For people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic, a short walk after a meal can help reduce the dangerous spikes in blood sugar associated with the disease.
"In someone with diabetes or insulin resistance, their glucose level can become very high after a meal," said Jenkins, who studies the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases. "This high level becomes a shock to your cardiovascular system, and the cells of your blood vessels perceive this as stress. This spike is linked to the development of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease."
In one study, published earlier this fall in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Jenkins and his research team from the College of Education studied the effect of exercise on diabetic patients who were taking the drug Metformin. Participants ate a meal high in sugar on four separate days and then had their blood glucose tested after four scenarios: Sitting and resting after eating, with and without taking Metformin; and walking for 15 minutes after eating, with and without taking Metformin.
A second study, published earlier this year, looked at similar scenarios in patients taking other types of diabetic drugs—ones specifically meant to treat the spike of blood glucose after a meal.
In both studies, Jenkins said, the combination of exercise and diabetes medication created the best outcome. While this makes sense, it was the first time researchers had shown the results of combining exercise with a drug to treat diabetes.
"The take-home idea is that there is a further benefit to be had, as far as glucose control, if you go for a walk," he said. "It can be a simple addition to your routine—you can take the dog for a walk, and if you time it after a meal, it's beneficial for your health because the glucose spikes can be particularly dangerous for your cardiovascular system."
These studies also show promise in how blood glucose is measured to show other health indicators. For example, often blood glucose levels are tested after fasting, or not eating for a certain period of time. But, Jenkins said, the spike in blood glucose levels after a meal can be a better indicator of issues down the road.
"Literature shows that the size of a glucose spike is a better predictor of who is going to get cardiovascular disease than measurements such as fasting glucose. That finger prick at the doctor's office only tells part of the story," Jenkins added. "For chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease secondary to diabetes, usually the first symptom is a major event, like a heart attack."
Typically, your body is good at handling stored carbohydrates in the liver and muscles; when those storerooms are full, the excess glucose turns into fat.
Jenkins' advice? On Thanksgiving, enjoy the turkey and the trimmings. And while he emphasizes that a short walk will not completely offset an excess of calories, the activity with family and friends after the meal will benefit everyone—especially someone with diabetes. "If you take the time to go for a walk after a meal, it's beneficial for your health because these spikes can be particularly dangerous for your cardiovascular system."
Related links: Department of Kinesiology