Taking short breaks from sitting to undertake light exercise – also known as ‘activity snacking’ – can help people with type 1 diabetes better manage their blood sugar levels, new research has suggested.

A small study funded by Diabetes UK found that activity snacking could offer people ‘a simple, cost-free’ way to help keep their blood sugar levels within the target range and potentially reduce the risk of future complications.

As part of the research, Dr Matthew Campbell of the University of Sunderland studied 32 participants over two seven-hour sitting sessions, over two weeks.

In one session participants broke up the seated time with three minutes of light walking every half an hour. While in the other, participants remained seated for the full seven hours.

Participants who took regular walking breaks, or ‘activity snacks’ had an average blood sugar level of 6.9mmol/L, compared with 8.2mmol/L during the uninterrupted sitting session.

By breaking up seated time, the study saw the time that blood sugar levels were in the target range (3.9-10 mmol/L) increase by 14%.

Dr Campbell said that these results were the first 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’.

He added that 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’.

The research also found that, crucially, the short bursts of activity did not increase the prevalence of hypos – periods of low blood sugar levels – among the participants, which are a common occurrence with traditional prolonged physical exercise.

Dr Elizabeth Robertson, director of research for Diabetes UK, said that managing blood sugar levels for patients with type 1 diabetes was ‘relentless’ and that it can be ‘challenging’ to build exercise into the daily routine.

Dr Roberson added: ‘It’s incredibly encouraging that these findings suggest that making a simple, practical change – such 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.’

Previous research has suggested that breaking up periods of sitting with frequent walks could help people with type 2 diabetes reduce the risk of complications, however this study was the first to show the same results with type 1 diabetes.