The notion that exercise reduces blood glucose levels is widespread. That notion is largely incorrect. Exercise appears to have a positive effect on insulin sensitivity in the long term, but also increases blood glucose levels in the short term. That is, exercise, while it is happening, leads to an increase in circulating blood glucose. In normoglycemic individuals, that increase is fairly small compared to the increase caused by consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods, particularly foods rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars.
The figure below, from the excellent book by Wilmore and colleagues (2007), shows the variation of blood insulin and glucose in response to an endurance exercise session. The exercise session’s intensity was at 65 to 70 percent of the individuals’ maximal capacity (i.e., their VO2 max). The session lasted 180 minutes, or 3 hours. The full reference to the book by Wilmore and colleagues is at the end of this post.
As you can see, blood insulin levels decreased markedly in response to the exercise bout, in an exponential decay fashion. Blood glucose increased quickly, from about 5.1 mmol/l (91.8 mg/dl) to 5.4 mmol/l (97.2 mg/dl), before dropping again. Note that blood glucose levels remained somewhat elevated throughout the exercise session. But, still, the elevation was fairly small in the participants, which were all normoglycemic. A couple of bagels would easily induce a rise to 160 mg/dl in about 45 minutes in those individuals, and a much larger “area under the curve” glucose response than exercise.
So what is going on here? Shouldn’t glucose levels go down, since muscle is using glucose for energy?
No, because the human body is much more “concerned” with keeping blood glucose levels high enough to support those cells that absolutely need glucose, such as brain and red blood cells. During exercise, the brain will derive part of its energy from ketones, but will still need glucose to function properly. In fact, that need is critical for survival, and may be seen as a bit of an evolutionary flaw. Hypoglycemia, if maintained for too long, will lead to seizures, coma, and death.
Muscle tissue will increase its uptake of free fatty acids and ketones during exercise, to spare glucose for the brain. And muscle tissue will also consume glucose, in part for glycogenesis; that is, for making muscle glycogen, which is being depleted by exercise. In this sense, we can say that muscle tissue is becoming somewhat insulin resistant, because it is using more free fatty acids and ketones for energy, and thus less glucose. Another way of looking at this, however, which is favored by Wilmore and colleagues (2007), is that muscle tissue is becoming more insulin sensitive, because it is still taking up glucose, even though insulin levels are dropping.
Truth be told, the discussion in the paragraph above is mostly academic, because muscle tissue can take up glucose without insulin. Insulin is a hormone that allows the pancreas, its secreting organ, to communicate with two main organs – the liver and body fat. (Yes, body fat can be seen as an “organ”, since it has a number of endocrine functions.) Insulin signals to the liver that it is time to take up blood glucose and either make glycogen (to be stored in the liver) or fat with it (secreting that fat in VLDL particles). Insulin signals to body fat that it is time to take up blood glucose and fat (e.g., packaged in chylomicrons) and make more body fat with it. Low insulin levels, during exercise, will do the opposite, leading to low glucose uptake by the liver and an increase in body fat catabolism.
Resistance exercise (e.g., weight training) induces much higher glucose levels than endurance exercise; and this happens even when one has fasted for 20 hours before the exercise session. The reason is that resistance exercise leads to the conversion of muscle glycogen into energy, releasing lactate in the process. Lactate is in turn used by muscle tissues as a source of energy, helping spare glycogen. It is also used by the liver for production of glucose through gluconeogenesis, which significantly elevates blood glucose levels. That hepatic glucose is then used by muscle tissues to replenish their depleted glycogen stores. This is known as the Cori cycle.
Exercise seems to lead, in the long term, to insulin sensitivity; but through a fairly complex and longitudinal process that involves the interaction of many hormones. One of the mechanisms may be an overall reduction in insulin levels, leading to increased insulin sensitivity as a compensatory adaptation. In the short term, particularly while it is being conducted, exercise nearly always increases blood glucose levels. Even in the first few months after the beginning of an exercise program, blood glucose levels may increase. If a person who was on a low carbohydrate diet started a 3-month exercise program, it is quite possible that the person’s average blood glucose would go up a bit. If low carbohydrate dieting began together with the exercise program, then average blood glucose might drop significantly, because of the acute effect of this type of dieting on average blood glucose.
Still exercise is health-promoting. The combination of the long- and short-term effects of exercise appears to lead to an overall slowing down of the progression of insulin resistance with age. This is a good thing.
Wilmore, J.H., Costill, D.L., & Kenney, W.L. (2007). Physiology of sport and exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.