Is Low Intensity Exercise Even Better?

An article published in the Washington Post included information suggesting that “low intensity” exercise, like walking, could be important for some people in developing the capacity to burn fat efficiently. The story’s example was a young woman in Colorado who participated in high intensity activities, like high altitude hiking and swimming, but (surprisingly) developed prediabetes. After undergoing an evaluation at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine Center, she was “diagnosed” with “metabolic inflexibility.”

What is metabolic inflexibility?

“Metabolic inflexibility” was described as having a poor ability to switch rapidly on a cellular level between burning either carbohydrates or fat for fuel. That is, cell mitochondria are not able to easily access and burn fat for energy, which should be an efficient switchover when the cell depletes available glucose. The suggestion was that exercising at too high an intensity for an individual’s overall fitness level does not work to develop healthy and “flexible” cellular mitochondria – low intensity exercise is where mitochondrial flexibility is perfected. Jumping into high intensity exercise, therefore, is skipping a crucial step.

This concept of “metabolic inflexibility” is interesting, but not necessarily a universally accepted condition. But, this story speaks to an important concept that is very important for people with type 2 diabetes – any physical activity is better than none. Too often patients assume that they must undertake some intense exercise program to get the benefit to diabetes management, and they are either incapable of sustaining high level activity or (worse) know they can’t so don’t exercise at all.

But, not only does jumping into high intensity exercise risk injury and “burnout,” it may actually be less effective at giving us the metabolic benefits we want than low intensity activity like walking. So, take a walk and improve your metabolic flexibility.

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