Do people with Type 1 diabetes exercise more than the general population? No way to know for sure, but sometimes it seems that way. Because we must pay strict attention to our bodies 24-7, T1s tend to invest abundant time and energy into our overall health, and exercise is the No. 2 way that we do that. (No. 1, of course, is making the right food choices.)
Moreover, recent advances in the treatment of Type 1 diabetes mean that we can perform on the same stages (and in the same pools, fields, arenas, stadiums and tracks) as people without diabetes. That’s why we have notable T1 athletes such as Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr., weightlifter Doug Burns, marathoner Missy Foy, soccer star Gary Mabult, quarterback Jay Cutler, and Phil Southerland – who heads up the professional cycling team, Team Type 1. And that’s just in the professional arena.
Amateur athletics are filled with competitors like you and me, people who have Type 1 diabetes but aren’t going to let it stand in the way of a hard workout or a great game. Of course, as in every other aspect of life with T1, it requires a little more effort of us.
Here are four things every athlete with Type 1 diabetes should know:
It’s Better With a Buddy. A workout buddy is good for anyone, but it’s even more important for T1 athletes because our blood-sugar levels can change erratically when we’re pushing our bodies to their limits. (I’m a triathlete, so I know about pushing it to the limit!) Unfortunately, the effects of low blood sugar are similar to the effect of sustained physical effort: sweating, trembling and an accelerated heart rate. It’s not always easy to judge if you’re going low, or just working suitably hard. And if you do go low, you’ll need someone to help if you should become cognitively impaired. Make life simpler. Have an exercise buddy, or even a team.
GU is Our Friend. Well, not just GU, but any type of gel designed for strenuous athletic endeavors that can help us maintain optimal blood glucose levels. (Runner’s World magazine suggests Hammer Gel, as it has fewer carbs and less sugar. The magazine also suggests refueling every 15 to 30 minutes, as opposed to every hour, which is the usual recommendation for long-distance runners with normal pancreatic function.) Here’s a great journal article with details if, like me, you’re into the technical aspects of this stuff.
Design a Care Plan. According to these guidelines from the National Institutes for Health in the US, every T1 athlete should have a written care plan and wear a medic alert tag. Your care plan should include the following: what type insulin you use, the necessary dosage, other medications you take, and emergency contact information. Keep in mind when writing your plan that people with zero knowledge of diabetes will probably be reading it. So spell everything out in the simplest of terms, and tell them how to recognize (and treat) hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. Because just like in all other aspects of life, you can do everything right and still have something go wrong.
Our Sport is Not a Hobby. Unlike the endocrinally-typical in our midst, exercise for us T1s is not an option and it’s not a hobby. It’s a requirement, as every doctor will tell you upon your DX. Regular and vigorous exercise is one of the handful of ways in which we relegate this pesky condition to the backburner of our lives, where it belongs. It’s one way in which we can take back control. As such, nobody in your life – not your mother, not your friends, not your boss – can tell you that something is more important than exercise.