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calf push-ups a new exercise for diabetes

Are Calf Push-Ups A Better Exercise Than Walking For Diabetes

Can calf push-ups bust the myth that you have to walk for miles to manage your diabetes with exercise?

If you have diabetes, you’ve heard it all, everyone has an opinion on how you should be living your life.

  • Make sure you walk every day
  • Don’t put any sugar in your coffee
  • Don’t wear those shoes, wear these diabetic shoes (that you think are ugly)

But the walking, that’s the one that resonates with so many. We’re told that we have to exercise and walking is the best way to do it comfortably and safely. And so you walk. Walk some more. And walk again.

But your blood sugars aren’t where you want them and your doctor wants to increase your medication again.

Calf push-ups summary

In this post you’ll learn:

Walking won’t cut it but calf push-ups might.

Calf push-ups are a simple, seated exercise that you can do with no equipment at home, and that might just be the greatest health hack for your diabetes.

So what is a calf push-up?

Let’s start by doing a calf push-up together right now. Are you sitting down? Great.

  • Lift your heels up off the floor with your toes still planted on the ground
  • Ideally, your knee starts at about 90 degrees and rises up
  • Lower your heels back down

That’s it, that’s one calf push-up. It wasn’t that difficult, was it? No pain? No real strain either.

So how can this simple exercise be amazing for your diabetes? Well, we’re going to have to get right into the science here.

Let’s start with a 2-minute explainer from Dr Andrew Huberman (from Huberman Lab / Stanford University School of Medicine)

How calf push-ups work

Calf push-ups work by turning the very large, flat muscle within your calf called Soleus to turn into a sugar-burning machine.

Your soleus has a unique structure with lots of flat, slow twitch fibres that usually work to apply tension to your Achilles tendon to spring you forwards when you walk or run. By tightening your Achilles your soleus muscle is responsible for around 8 times your body weight of force production.

But unlike other muscles that contract to move your joints over a large range (think your bicep muscles in your arms), your soleus does not fatigue anywhere near as fast. If you don’t believe me, start flexing your arm through the full range and see how long it takes you to get tired.

I’ll bet even without any weights it’s only a minute or two.

Yet in this study, they had participants complete 270 minutes (that’s 4 and a half hours!) worth of soleus contractions as calf push-ups and they didn’t get tired. And these participants were probably just like you. Their ages ranged from 38 to 68 with a wide variety of fitness levels too.

During repeated calf push-ups they discovered that the soleus muscle turned into a glycolysis machine. The positive effects started to kick in around the 30 minute mark so you will need to be consistent but not quite the full 4 + hours.

Quite literally, burning sugars!

Here’s a figure from the study authors and you can scroll to the end of this article for a 10 minute explainer from Dr Huberman.

Image courtesy of Hamilton, MT. et al. (2022) iScience. A potent physiological method to magnify and sustain soleus oxidative metabolism improves glucose and lipid regulation.

How to use calf push-ups in your exercise routine

To start with, this one needs to be a habit. 

Like all habits, you’ll need a trigger, perhaps it’s a reminder on your phone. Or maybe it’s a ritual, like something you do as soon as you sit at your desk or the kitchen table. Plan when you’re going to do this and then atomic habit it.

Then, just do it!

Here’s how I built calf push-ups into my routine.

Create a trigger

  • I set a reminder in my calendar on my phone that goes off at 11 am each day, a time I’m usually at my desk or consulting (so sitting down).

Start my calf push-ups

  • When my trigger goes off, like Pavlov’s hounds my calves start flexing.
  • I raise my heels up and down to engage my sugar-burning soleus muscle.
  • I’ll aim for 30 minutes but recognise that it’s a process. The first time I got distracted after about 3 minutes. Next time it was 10 minutes. After a week I was finding that I could keep up the calf push-ups on autopilot while I worked.

Go easy on yourself

  • This new habit is going to be hard to form, you don’t get any immediate results or rewards.
  • Be kind to yourself, try, fail, and try again.
  • As you continue to build and build your calf push-up routine you’ll find it’s so easy to do it’s harder to stop than to start. Now you’re truly a sugar burner.

Finally, let’s finish off by reflecting on what we’ve learned.

  • Walking is a great exercise, but on its own, it’s not enough for diabetes control.
  • Calf push-ups are a new exercise that has been proven to burn sugar and can be completed with no equipment and minimal stress.
  • Starting a new habit like calf push-ups (or anything) when the reward isn’t immediate is hard, so be kind to yourself and keep trying.

And most importantly, your exercise needs are varied and personal. 

What I need is different to what you need and different to the next person you talk to as well. For a balanced exercise program with movement, calf push-ups and resistance training it’s advised to see an exercise expert (an Exercise Physiologist) to get your own plan.

About the Author

tim mulholland podiatrist melbourne and pascoe vale

Tim Mulholland is a podiatrist from Melbourne and a clinical educator at La Trobe University. When not consulting and helping people with diabetes live their best lives on their feet he’s an avid podcast listener during his long runs around Melbourne. During one of these runs, he learned about calf push-ups and stopped in his tracks to run home and read the research in full.