Regular physical activity helps prevent and manage many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes. Most research on exercise and diabetes focuses on continuous, or steady state, physical activity. This is the exercise most of us are familiar with: walking, biking, or running, for example, performed at a consistent effort over some period of time.

An alternative form of exercise called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) also demonstrates health benefits in healthy individuals. A few small studies find it can be helpful for people with type 2 diabetes as well.


People who engage in HIIT perform short intervals of exercise at or near their estimated maximum heart rate (the number of times your heart can beat in one minute without over-exertion). These intense intervals are mixed with periods of recovery. The recovery periods may last as long—or even longer—than the work interval. Because the exercise intervals are at a high intensity, the total workout time tends to be shorter.

The beauty of HIIT is that you can perform it regardless of your fitness level, even if you have a chronic health condition. You can also adapt it to your exercise of choice. HIIT produces the same health benefits in less time—a real advantage to individuals who say time is a barrier to exercise. In fact, HIIT tends to burn more calories than traditional workouts, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Diabetes Management and HIIT

Several recent studies found that high intensity exercise improves glycemic control (maintaining healthy blood sugar levels) in people with type 2 diabetes, even more than with traditional, continuous training. Interval training increases an important measure of insulin sensitivity (how sensitive you are the effects of insulin) without lowering insulin secretion from cells in the pancreas, thus improving glycemic control.

Researchers still don’t understand exactly how HIIT improves glycemic control. They also don’t yet know if these results justify recommending HIIT to patients with type 2 diabetes. Most studies have had very small groups of participants, so it’s hard to say for sure if the results would apply broadly to all people with type 2 diabetes.

Amber Taylor, MD, a diabetes expert, does not necessarily advocate HIIT for all type 2 diabetes patients, but does encourage regular exercise.

"Patients should listen to their bodies and start slowly," she says. "Even if you were an athlete in the past, this doesn’t mean you can start running straight away. It is better to do something lighter, for a shorter duration, but do it every day. Your goal should be 30 minutes of exercise daily most days of the week."

Taylor says most patients don’t need to see a physician before starting cardiovascular exercise; however, she recommends patients who have heart disease, plan to lift weights, or start vigorous activity do get clearance from their physician.

Amber Taylor, MD, reviewed this article.


Amber Taylor, MD. Email message to author, September 17, 2014.

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"High-Intensity Interval Training." American College of Sports Medicine. Accessed September 16, 2014.