You might have heard of Tabatas, or the Tabata Protocol. It’s a high-intensity method of cardiovascular conditioning. People talk a lot of shit about it. Essentially it amounts to 20 seconds of all-out super intense exercise followed by a 10 second rest, and you do that for 8 rounds, which is a total of only 4 minutes. It doesn’t take up a lot of time. People misrepresent the protocol frequently – it’s not for strength training, it’s not for biceps curls or crunches, it’s for full-body cardiovascular exercise, but many things are misrepresented these days so that’s nothing new.
Of course people use this protocol in an attempt to lose weight – we use all kinds of exercises to that end – but it might need to be said that Izumi Tabata, the scientist after whom the protocol was named, at no point in the study paid any attention to fat-loss or body composition. Anyway. What interests me is the topic of insulin sensitivity, or to frame it more practically, your body’s ability to assimilate, utilise, or metabolise carbohydrates.
As a type one diabetic, I notice if I go a while without training, my blood sugar levels begin to rise, and my insulin dependence increases. I need to inject more insulin to be able to metabolise sugar. This is not ideal. If however, I train semi-regularly – even if I’m not training every day, my insulin sensitivity remains improved, my body metabolises sugar well, and this seems to last for a few days after training, even if those few days are fairly sedentary.
This is pretty much how it seems to work for everyone. Type one diabetes is not associated with impaired insulin function – you just don’t produce any, so once you’ve injected it, it functions pretty much the same as it would for anyone else. If you exercise, it makes insulin work better. This is true for all of us.
The point? Very little training is required to stimulate insulin sensitivity, or in broader terms, to make you better at metabolising sugar. This can be helpful if you have diabetes or are at risk of developing any type of diabetes.
Sometimes people will have cake after training, and they’ll talk about ruining the benefits of exercise by eating cake. This does not actually happen. It’s only a calorie counting fantasy, if you’re focused on anything other than calories, it’s clear. It is impossible to ruin your training or undo the benefits by eating cake, because when you exercise, it makes you better at metabolising everything you eat. This can last for up to five days after exercise. Being better at metabolising food is a benefit, no matter what you are eating. The more regularly you’ve been training, the longer you’ve been training, the longer this effect seems to last, in my experience.
Eating cake after training does not magically mean that training isn’t good for you. Eat whatever the hell you want. If you’re training well, you’ll probably need to eat more, and it’s generally good for you to do so. The take home message is simply this: eating junk after exercise doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time. Exercise is so damn good for you it’s just not funny. It’s amazing.
Something else Tabata has been studying is the effect of exercise on glucotransporter 4, which is not insulin, but like insulin it plays a role in your body’s ability to metabolise sugar. Insulin is important, but it’s not only insulin that we use to assimilate and utilise carbs. It seems that the name of the substance describes its action quite well: it helps to move glucose, to get sugar into the muscle where it can be used. The short version is this: as little as 90 seconds of resistance training per day stimulates the production of glucotransporter 4, and – if you stop to think about it, it blows my mind – 90 seconds of training, and your body becomes better at metabolising sugar.
I would be astounded if this made anyone thin, but I don’t care. People are terrified of diabetes. They think it’s a one-way ticket. I think I used to feel the same way about my teeth – you’re ultimately just fighting a losing battle against decay, and it all seems a bit pointless. And I’ve been lucky with my teeth, I’ve got no real problems with them, but this sense that there isn’t much you can do meant I’d brush and all, but I never felt like there was much point to investing in the health of my teeth because – will it really do any good in the end? The short answer is yes, of course it will. I started flossing properly and have managed to reverse what could have been pretty significant gum disease. Anyway, with diabetes and health, I think people often feel the same way – like it’s ultimately a futile struggle against decay, degradation, disease. This is not the truth. The truth is that there’s plenty that you can do to actively improve your health, and it does not actually start with weight-loss.
Of course you may not be capable of high-intensity cardiovascular exercise. That’s okay, it really is. Tabata studied athletes. Not everyone is an athlete, and not everyone needs to train like one in order to derive benefits. And people make weird leaps of faith – improving your body’s ability to metabolise sugar will not magically result in fat-loss, because body fat is not sugar. It might, but there are a few leaps of faith happening here too.
But think of it – if you really can improve your body’s ability to metabolise sugar with as little as 90 seconds of exercise every day or two – the possibilities for improved health are astounding.
Or perhaps even to step back a little: exercise + cake is much better than no exercise and no cake for a billion reasons. Any training is good training. Really. If you enjoy it, great. If you can bring yourself to it, great. And it’s self-regulatory. If it makes you feel like shit, it’s not good for you. If you can’t do it, it’s not good for you. Do what you can, in ways that you enjoy, and it will be of some benefit, in some way. I know this has been a post about intense exercise, which you need to work up to over time if you’re going to be good at it, but body chemistry is alarmingly subtle, and health seems to come down to this: not exercise measured in hours or intensity or intention, but incredibly subtle changes in body chemistry. The necessary stimulus may be unique and subtle too.
Do things you enjoy, that make you feel good, and trust that your body is your compass. This example – 90 seconds of intense work – is only one example of many; that all kinds of different methods for exercise have merit and benefit.