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‘Activity snacking’ helps people with type 1 diabetes manage blood sugar levels, new study finds

Our research reveals for the first time, that short breaks from sitting time - also known as ‘activity snacking’ - can help people with type 1 diabetes to spend more time with their blood sugar levels in target range.

Long periods of sitting time can be harmful to our health, even if you exercise regularly. But 'activity snacking' could offer people a simple, cost-free way to help manage their blood sugar levels and potentially reduce their risk of future complications.

Previous research has shown that breaking up periods of sitting with short, frequent walks can help people with type 2 diabetes reduce their blood sugar levels and their risk of complications. This is because being active can increase the amount of glucose (sugar) used by muscles and can help the body to use insulin more effectively. 

But until now we haven’t known if people with type 1 diabetes could see the same benefits. Or if there could be any risks, such as having more hypos.

With funding from Diabetes UK, Dr Matthew Campbell at the University of Sunderland investigated, for the first time, the impact of breaking up sedentary time on blood sugar levels in people with type 1 diabetes. He’ll be presenting his findings at our Professional Conference (DUKPC) later this week.

Less sitting time

In the study, 32 participants completed two seven-hour sitting sessions over a two-week period.

During one session, participants remained seated for the full seven hours. During the other session, they broke up their sitting time with three-minute bouts of light intensity walking every 30 minutes.  

Participants wore a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to track their blood sugar levels for a 48-hour period during and after each sitting session. Everyone was given a standardised breakfast and lunch, and they were asked to stick to the same diet, activity levels and insulin doses over the study period. 

Blood sugar benefits

The team found that taking regular walking breaks resulted in lower average blood sugar levels (6.9mmol/L) over the 48-hour study period, compared to uninterrupted sitting (8.2mmol/L). This increased time with blood sugar levels in the target range (3.9-10 mmol/L) by 14%.

The improvement in time-in-range was seen over the whole 48-hour study period after the breaks from sitting session, including after meals and at night. Crucially, breaks from sitting didn’t increase hypos (low blood sugar levels).

Dr Matthew Campbell, at the University of Sunderland, said: 

These results provide the first piece of evidence that simply breaking up prolonged periods of time sitting with light-intensity activity can increase the amount of time spent with blood sugar levels in the target range. Importantly, this strategy does not seem to increase the risk of potentially dangerous blood glucose lows which are a common occurrence with more traditional types of physical activity and exercise. 

Breaking up prolonged sitting with light-intensity activity is something that people can do irrespective of whether they currently exercise or not. For some people, ‘activity snacking’ could be an important stepping-stone towards more regular physical activity or exercise, whereas for others, it may be a simple and acceptable intervention to help manage blood glucose levels. 

Following on from these initial findings, our preliminary analyses also show that breaking up prolonged sitting time with light-activity breaks may improve blood vessel health and reduce the risk of diabetes related complications.

Dr Elizabeth Robertson, our Director of Research, said:

For people with type 1 diabetes, managing blood sugar levels day in day out is relentless. Being physically active is important in managing the condition, but building exercise into your daily routine can be challenging, and even those who exercise frequently can often spend a lot of time sitting or lying down. 

It’s incredibly encouraging that these findings suggest that making a simple, practical changesuch as taking phone calls while walking, or setting a timer to remind you to take breaks – to avoid sitting for long periods could have such a profound effect on blood sugar levels.  

Breaking up sitting time with short bursts of activity offers a cost-free way to help people with type 1 diabetes manage their blood sugar levels and potentially reduce their risk of future complications. We look forward to further research to understand the long-term benefits of this approach.

Stay tuned for more breaking DUKPC research news all week. 

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