A walk after a heavy meal is a good move, but it’s best to wait an hour or so before heading for the door.
The winner here is our levels of blood glucose which rise after a meal and reach a peak about an hour after eating, explains researcher Dr Evelyn Parr from the Australian Catholic University’s Exercise and Nutrition Research Program.
A walk after a meal is good for your gut and blood sugar levels. Credit:iStock
“If you go for a walk too soon after eating, your gut will still be processing the food so blood glucose can keep on rising. But once it’s peaked and you start walking, your muscles can take up that blood glucose for fuel and that helps to keep blood glucose levels even.”
Walking after eating a big meal at night may be better still, Dr Parr adds.
“The closer we get to the evening, the less efficient our bodies are at using insulin to deal with blood glucose, making it harder to keep blood glucose levels healthy. Yet this is when we have our biggest meal of the day.”
Research into whether the optimal time for exercise is morning or evening have had mixed results, but her gut feeling is that evenings might be better in terms of managing blood glucose.
“Our meals in the morning are relatively small and we’re more likely to be active afterwards compared to the evenings when we’re less physically active than in the morning, so a family walk then is ideal,” she says. “But if you’re plonked in front of TV after dinner, glucose has nowhere to go and if it’s not being taken up by muscles, and insulin isn’t working well then you can end up with high blood glucose levels by the end of the day. If we keep repeating this same scenario of a big evening meal followed by no physical activity, and we lead a sedentary life too, we’re increasing our risk of type 2 diabetes.”
So why do healthy levels of blood sugar matter so much?
Because over time, the high levels of blood glucose that come with diabetes or pre-diabetes can damage the small, delicate blood vessels that feed into organs like eyes and kidneys and the nerves of the feet, especially the toes, causing damage, explains Neale Cohen, Head of Diabetes Clinical Research at the Baker Institute.
“Other organs including the brain are affected too, and there’s growing evidence that dementia is linked to diabetes. This is why moving is so important. Muscles, especially the large muscles, take up a lot of glucose but when we sit all day, that glucose stagnates in the blood,” he says. “The damage to blood vessels doesn’t happen overnight – it takes years – but if a test shows that blood glucose levels are too high, it’s important to take action to lower them as soon as possible.”
Walking after a big meal is kind to the gut too. It stimulates gut movement so that both food and gas get through the gut more quickly, says Professor Jane Andrews of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia.
“This means that more gas is passed and bloating is reduced. Walking also tends to improve or prevent reflux symptoms. Better still, if walking is a regular habit it helps with weight management – and that’s good for the gut too. Obesity leads to extra fat within the abdomen and this also causes a feeling of bloating, more reflux and discomfort.”
“At this time of the year, there’s always a lot of focus on eating too much on Christmas Day and being inactive, but it’s the rest of the year we should worry about,” adds Evelyn Parr. “In fact, a Christmas Day ritual of a big, late lunch, followed by a walk or some other physical activity, and just a small snack in the evening may be better for our blood glucose levels than the usual daily routine of big dinners followed by a slump on the sofa.”
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