Giving Sugar the Run-around: How Exercise Protects Blood Vessels from Sugary Drinks

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An estimated 70% of people living in the U.S. add too much sugar, about 23 teaspoons, to their diet each day. This is alarming because diets high in added sugar increase the risk for developing chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, which is the leading cause of death worldwide. (Natural sugars found in fruit don’t count as “added.”)

Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks and juice drinks account for the majority of the added sugar we consume. Many of us already know that exercise benefits our health in a lot of ways, but could it also offset the negative effects of drinking sugar-sweetened beverages? We didn’t know, until researchers at the University of Iowa put it to the test.

A study published in the American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology suggests that exercise may neutralize the effects of sugary beverages on blood vessel health. The researchers studied a group of male volunteers who consumed 75 grams of added sugar per day—roughly 19 teaspoons or the amount of sugar in a 23-ounce soda—for seven days. The men gained about two pounds over the course of the week. They also had reduced blood vessel function—meaning their arteries did not expand as much after restricting blood flow to the forearm—when compared to before the trial.

You might wonder how exercise fits into this scenario. A second group of male volunteers participated the same trial, but also cycled for 45 minutes at moderate intensity during five of those seven days. This exercise group only gained 0.2 pounds and, importantly, their blood vessel function was not reduced.

Keeping in mind that a poor diet increases the risk for developing heart disease, some people may want to set a goal to cut added sugar from their diet. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and no more than 36 grams of sugar a day for men. While we work to reduce our sugar intake, remember to give sugar the run-around by improving your exercise routine. Happy trails (and treadmills).

Joseph C. Watso, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Watso is interested in studying the role of lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise, for optimizing health.

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