After a heavy meal, sometimes all you want to do is nap. (Thanks, carb-based blood sugar spike, then crash!) But if you can muster the energy, going for a stroll might have an outsized benefit for your health. And it’s not because you’re burning off calories you just ate.
With the holiday season approaching, big meals are sure to be in your future. At today’s Thanksgiving feast, we celebrate with the time-honored tradition of over-indulging — something that’s OK if confined to the holidays. But there’s also no better time than the holidays to start a new after-meal walking habit. Something as simple as going for a walk with your family after you eat can give your health a boost.
Research suggests that a brisk post-meal walk lowers your triglyceride levels, which is important for heart health. Likewise, studies have shown decreases in blood glucose levels associated with a little exercise after eating. Combine these results with what we know about the healthfulness of walking in general, and it’s hard to say no to that after-meal stroll.
Triglycerides spike after eating
Triglycerides are a type of fat that’s carried in our bloodstream. When we consume too many calories, especially from sugar, alcohol or simple carbohydrates, our bodies convert that excess into triglycerides and store it in fat cells. Triglyceride levels in the bloodstream spike after you eat and fall again between meals when you’re fasting.
The higher your baseline triglyceride levels ascend, the longer they take to return to baseline. This means sustaining a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet will cause your triglycerides to creep up over time. Higher triglyceride levels greatly increase your risk for heart disease.
One way to keep triglycerides generally low is to eat more seafood, which has been shown to have a positive effect on blood levels. You could even include a lovely seafood-based side dish like Seared Scallops with Asian-Style Slaw as part of the Thanksgiving feast.
Does one high-calorie, high-carbohydrate meal, such as a Thanksgiving feast, have the same effect as chronically eating this way? No. But it’s still helpful to keep your triglycerides in mind as you consider the impact your meals and exercising (or lack thereof) might have on your health.
Walking after eating
Luckily, research shows that even light exercise right after a meal can help knock down triglyceride levels by as much as 72 percent (Aoi et al., 2013). In one experiment, researchers put 10 healthy young men and women to the test, comparing blood triglyceride levels after a meal in people who exercised either 60 minutes before or 60 minutes after eating. The workout consisted of a 1.2-mile brisk walk followed by a series of strength exercises with 4- or 8-lb dumbbells.
Both groups showed lower blood triglycerides after eating than non-exercisers, but the effects were far greater for those who worked out post-feast. Before-meal exercisers saw a 25 percent reduction in post-meal triglycerides while after-meal exercisers saw a dramatic 72 percent reduction.
(Read more: Fitness Made Simple: Just Walk)
Some researchers are skeptical of this effect, though. For example, a similar study in 2019 that tested post-meal walking on older adults at risk for cardiovascular disease found the walk had no effect on triglycerides or other metrics (Diekmann et al., 2019).
Still, a walk after a meal can’t hurt. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults get 150 minutes of exercise each week, according to their most recent Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (U.S. DHHS, 2018). That’s just over 20 minutes a day, or 30 minutes spread across five days. Sneaking in a short, brisk walk after a meal is a great way to meet this target without having to find workout time in your busy schedule.
One more advantage: the motion of walking improves digestion, and speeds “gastric emptying” as food moves out of the stomach (Franke et al., 2008). That means the uncomfortable post-meal bloating sensation recedes more quickly than it would if you sat – or dozed – on the couch in front of the afternoon’s football games.
(Read more: Speed-Walk Your Way to a Longer, Healthier Life?)
Physical activity guidelines
How long should you wait to start your walk? Researchers have put this to the test, too, and suggest waiting at least 30 minutes (Reynolds & Venn, 2018). In one study, participants ate white bread containing 50 grams of carbs, then took a 10-minute spin on a no-resistance stationary bike either 15 or 45 minutes after the snack. The 15-minute group saw the expected spike in blood sugar due to the carb-heavy meal, while the 45-minute group saw a far smaller increase in blood sugar. Avoiding spikes in blood sugar after eating is a great way to stave off post-meal sugar crashes and, in the long run, the development of type II diabetes.
Studies show there are lots of reasons to go for a walk after a meal. Whether you’re hoping to lower your triglycerides, keep your blood sugar in check or just stay healthy, a short, brisk walk can do your body a lot of good.
This Thanksgiving, why not gather your loved ones and go for a stroll together. It’s a great activity to keep the family time going after your meal together has ended. And if you’re lucky, you might just end up with a new holiday tradition — one that will improve the health of the whole family.
Aoi, W, et al. "Combined light exercise after meal intake suppresses postprandial serum triglyceride." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 45.2 (2013): 245-252. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31826f3107
Diekmann, Christina, et al. "Moderate postmeal walking has no beneficial effects over resting on postprandial lipemia, glycemia, insulinemia, and selected oxidative and inflammatory parameters in older adults with a cardiovascular disease risk phenotype: A randomized crossover trial." The Journal of Nutrition 149.11 (2019): 1930-1941. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxz148
Franke A;Harder H;Orth AK;Zitzmann S;Singer MV; (2008). Postprandial walking but not consumption of alcoholic digestifs or espresso accelerates gastric emptying in healthy volunteers. Journal of gastrointestinal and liver diseases : JGLD. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18392240/.
Reynolds, Andrew N., and Bernard J. Venn. "The timing of activity after eating affects the glycaemic response of healthy adults: a randomised controlled trial." Nutrients 10.11 (2018): 1743.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.