11 (Non-Dietary) Actions That Enhance Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin Dictionary Definition closeup highlighted in pinkInsulin does a lot of important things for us. It pulls glucose from the blood and fritters it away into our cells to be burned for energy or stored as glycogen. It prevents hyperglycemic toxicity to neurons, pancreatic cells, the arterial walls and the generation of excessive levels of reactive oxygen species. It even promotes muscle protein synthesis and helps augment muscular hypertrophy, especially following resistance training. Clearly, we need insulin. Without it, we’d die, as type 1 diabetics readily do without an exogenous source.

But this process goes off the rails when our cells become resistant to the effect of insulin over time. We secrete too much. Our levels remain elevated. It becomes harder to burn body fat. In fact, we end up in even more efficient fat storage mode.

I’ve shared about nutritional means to enhance insulin sensitivity in the past. What about other non-dietary strategies?

Lose Weight

Since insulin resistance is often the body’s response to energy excess (too much energy in), losing weight (increasing energy out) improves insulin sensitivity. Losing abdominal fat is particularly effective for increasing insulin sensitivity.

Lift Weights

Lifting heavy things, particularly with great intensity, improves insulin sensitivity by an interesting mechanism: non-insulin dependent glucose uptake happens immediately after the workout, which allows your muscles to replenish glycogen without insulin. According to some researchers, “the effect of exercise is similar to the action of insulin on glucose uptake.” I’d say not having to secrete any insulin makes you effectively insulin-sensitive.

Practice Sprint Intervals

An overloaded, energy-replete cell is an insulin resistant cell. An empty, “starving” cell is an insulin sensitive cell. Any exercise that burns glycogen and leaves your muscles empty and gaping for more will necessarily increase insulin sensitivity.

I can’t think of a faster way to burn through your glycogen than with a high intensity interval training session. Hill sprints or rower sprints are sufficiently intense and comprehensive.

Do Full Body, High Volume, High Intensity Training

Glycogen depletion occurs locally: high rep leg presses will deplete leg muscle glycogen, but they won’t touch glycogen in your arms, chest, and back. To fully deplete all the glycogen, you need to do full-body movements.

CrossFit WODs and other similar metcon workouts that have you doing pullups, squats, sprints, pushups, box jumps, and other compound movements—at high volume, in the same workout, and with minimal rest—will drain your glycogen stores and reduce the amount of insulin you need to replenish them.

Trigger Your Relaxation Response

Maybe it’s the quieting of the sympathetic nervous system, the “flight or flight” stress pathway. Maybe brief glimpses of bodhi reduce the amount of insulin required to dispose of glucose. Whatever’s going on, meditation (and likely other relaxation response inducing activities) improves insulin sensitivity.

Trigger Some Oxytocin

So, researchers might have used intranasal oxytocin for their purposes. But oxytocin is what we secrete in response to positive social interactions like sex, good conversation, dinner parties, breastfeeding, cuddling, and petting animals.

Ensure Adequate, Quality Sleep

If you’re coming from a place of already-adequate sleep, getting better sleep isn’t necessarily going to help your insulin sensitivity (although it might confer other benefits). It’s the absence of adequate sleep that destroys insulin sensitivity. By sleeping well, you’re restoring what was lost.

Train At Altitude

One study found that altitude hiking at 4500 meters improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. This isn’t feasible for everyone (4500 meters is really quite high, and not everyone lives near a suitable mountain). And, in truth, some people just aren’t ready to climb a mountain and hike around (in the study, some participants with low DHEA-S levels didn’t get the benefits), but it’s one way to improve it. Find the closest challenge you can in your region of the country.

Train In a Fasted State

While training of any kind promotes better insulin sensitivity, training in the fasted state enhances this effect. One study found that relatively high-intensity “cardio” performed while fasted increased subjects’ insulin sensitivity beyond the group who did the same training after a carb meal, even in the context of a normally obesogenic high-fat, high-carb diet.

Just Take a Walk

As the Primal Blueprint fitness concept of slow movement suggests, a simple walk can be quite powerful, particularly if you string them together to form a daily walking habit. A walk is good for glucose control after meals, but regular walking can have impressive effects on insulin sensitivity.

Never Stop Exercising

In other words, stay active for life. In a recent paper, both sprinters (aged 20-90 years) and endurance athletes (20-80 years) had far better insulin sensitivity than sedentary controls. Absorb this point: insulin sensitivity didn’t decrease with age in the two active groups. Even the 90-year-old sprinter retained good insulin sensitivity. The sedentary controls? Not so much. That says it all, I think.

Thanks for stopping by today, everyone. Let me know your thoughts, additions and questions below.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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16 thoughts on “11 (Non-Dietary) Actions That Enhance Insulin Sensitivity”

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  1. When I was actively trying to lose weight, I walked every day and would lose 2-3 lbs a week. When I stopped walking daily, the weight loss would stall, when I’d start again it would drop again. At the time I thought it was the calorie burn, but now I believe it had more to do with making me more insulin sensitive as the calorie burn was quite minimal.

  2. Not to be nit-picky, but I would say that “train in a fasted state” is dietary in nature considering it requires that you not eat for a period of time beforehand.

    Then again, can NOT doing something be related to doing it? Is sitting on my rear related to lifting weights because it’s abstaining from lifting?

    1. If your rear is on a workout bench and you’re pushing dumbbells around, yes, it is related. 😛

    2. The FCC sure considers not engaging in economic activity to be the same as positively engaging, so according to the government, the answer to your question is yes. which means in reality, no.

  3. What about temperature changes (cold plunges, saunas, Wim Hof training)?

  4. You should specify GOOD sex, or at least orgasm for oxytocin release! For women, bad sex and no orgasm is not going to get that hit.

    1. Agreed. To most men, ANY sex IS good sex, and to most women, most of the sex they’re getting is NOT good sex.

  5. HIIT on the rower really works for me. The protocol starts with a 4 minute warm up and then 60 seccond rest followed by 20 second sprint, 60 second rest intervals. I assume my glycogen is depleted when I can’t break 100 meters in 20 seconds. Usually about 8 to 10 intervals. When I get a little rest, I do 3 sets of pushups because the forward push muscle group seems to be the only system not stressed with rower sprints.

  6. So apparently my dog is really good for my insulin sensitivity… I take him on long walks daily and there’s lots of cuddling going on. I lift plenty of heavy things. Now I just need to get some sleep!

  7. After yesterday’s post, I am wondering if training in a fasted state really increases insulin sensitivity for women. For many years, I have run or walked just before lunch, in the hope of increasing my insulin sensitivity. But yesterday’s post – which essentially says that fasting brings fewer advantages for women – makes me woder…

    1. “Fewer” doesn’t mean “none.” If you like your routine and feel it has an overall positive effect on you, then stick with it. If you’re Type 1 it might not totally do the trick, but it will undoubtedly be beneficial.

  8. Exercise everyday for your whole life! Exercise results in better sleep and better nutrition – you’re more apt to seek out nutrient dense foods rather than processed junk. Simple bodyweight calisthenics as describe by Mark on this blog are all you’ll ever need – push-ups, pull-ups, bar dips, and squats. Do them everyday – takes only 10-15 minutes at most. Add in one or two sprint sessions per week. Do this and I guarantee you’ll increase your insulin sensitivity.

  9. Love this post. I’m a type 1 diabetic and I literally do these things daily. My insulin requirements have dropped significantly over the years!

  10. Altitude hiking wouldn’t be possible for me. I live in Australia and the highest point in Australia is Mount Kosciuszko (2,228 m or 7,310 ft) in southern New South Wales.

  11. Thanks once again for sharing such a valuable post. Insulin is really important for our body as it plays a crucial role to pull glucose from the blood and fritters them into our cells to be burned for energy or stored as glycogen. It really helps a lot to know more about Insulin.

  12. Thanks to deal the actions that enhance insulin sensitivity. Insulin does many important things for us so everyone should know its nutritional means and non-dietary factors that improve insulin sensitivity.