Excelling at Sport with Diabetes

 In Adaptive Athlete, Diabetes, Fitness
Guest post by Robert Turp & Michelle Stevens on TheFitnessPollenator.com

There are 29 million Americans currently living with diabetes. It’s frequently described as one of the biggest health issues of the 21st Century, with those diagnosed with type II diabetes growing every year. Learning how to manage this illness is something that is very important. It’s a chronic illness that can have a big impact on someone’s life.

But how does diabetes affect sport? What happens if you dream of sporting success but currently live with this illness?

Contrary to what people may believe, diabetes (both type I and II) doesn’t need to be an obstacle to enjoying or excelling at sports and fitness. Men and women with diabetes are common in sports at all levels and have achieved some of the highest awards available on the planet. If you think diabetics can’t achieve greatness, just look at Steve Redgrave, one of the most decorated Olympians of all time. He won Olympic gold after being diagnosed with diabetes. Did his training change? Yes, of course. Did it affect his success? No.

Steve Redgrave, one of the most decorated Olympians ever

Sport, or exercise of any form, is highly recommended for all people with diabetes because it provides a wide range of health benefits — including improved sensitivity to insulin. Because of this, it’s important for diabetics to monitor their blood sugar before, during, and after activity in addition to their current management routine. Keep in mind that the increased insulin sensitivity from exercise can affect blood sugars for up to 48 hours. In these situations, it’s incredibly helpful to wear a glucose sensor, if possible, to see the body’s response to exercise, as blood sugar can change rapidly during and in response to exercise.

Management of diabetes and exercise depends on many factors, including type of exercise, intensity, and the length of workout session. Different workouts affect the body in different ways. For example, brisk walking and continuous jogging will usually lead to a reliable lowering in blood glucose levels. By contrast, high intensity workouts, whether cardio or strength focused, can initially lead to a rise in blood sugar followed by a drop if the exercise session is long enough. Sports will affect individuals differently, as well. Individuals must take time to experiment with their own bodies to determine their unique response to various stimuli.

The effect of a training session on blood sugar will also depend on current levels of blood sugar control, activity, and types of medication (oral medication, insulin injections, or insulin pump). Consulting a doctor or diabetes educator for recommended changes to medications is a must. Managing diabetes and exercise requires both patience and trial and error while adjusting to new levels of activity and learning the idiosyncrasies of the body. In addition, target blood sugar ranges may be different around times of physical activity to stay safe and have the energy to perform at a high level.

Case Study: Swimming

Based on Travis’s swimming background, let’s use swimming as an example. Swimming is a great form of exercise, whether you’re competing at a high level or simply for the enjoyment. It’s a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness, and there’s a lot less stress on your joints compared to other sports. It also uses both upper and lower body muscles, which is a beneficial alternative to weight bearing exercise for people with diabetic neuropathy while still providing cardiovascular benefits. If you play a highly physical sport, then a weekly pool session can help relieve pressure on your body while simultaneously getting a good cardio session in.

So how can you manage diabetes when swimming?

Swimming once or twice a week may not require anything extravagant in terms of management. Test blood sugar leading up to exercise, during sessions lasting longer than 20-30 minutes, and after the training session. For individuals needing…..


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