FAQ: Exercising with diabetes

FAQ: Exercising with diabetes

As a parent, you obviously want what’s best for your child – but what is really best when it comes to exercise and children with diabetes? Riekie Human tells us what you need to know (adults can learn a little something, too!).

Although experts agree that it’s crucial for kids with diabetes to exercise, you need to make sure they’re doing it safely. Thankfully, it’s easier than you think… We got all the answers from experts in the field.

What kind of exercise should my child do?

“The most helpful exercises encourage muscle contraction and increase the effect of insulin.” What does that mean? The exercise helps more glucose to be transported out of the blood stream and into the cells to be used: body weight exercise and resistance training are particularly good at this. However, young children should take part in all kinds of exercise, particularly cardiovascular for the development and health of the heart, lungs and lipid profiles (cholesterol), and team sports to encourage skills and develop confidence. Sarah Hall, Biokineticist at Wellness in Motion, Morningside

Ball sports are especially good for children with diabetes. “They involve a combination of exercises like jogging and sprinting, and research has found that this is best for stability in blood sugar levels.” Contact sports like karate can be tricky, especially for children with insulin pumps, as the pump could get damaged – and the same applies to horse riding. Andrew Heilbrunn, Head Biokineticist at the Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology (CDE) in Houghton

What time of day should my child exercise?

The best time for kids with diabetes to exercise is before breakfast and before supper. “They’re less likely to hit lows at those times. Before breakfast, they’ll be quite insulin-resistant and are unlikely to experience a drop in blood sugar.” The worst time to exercise? An hour or two after meals, when insulin in the system can cause more frequent lows.

Andrew Heilbrunn

How long should my child exercise for?

That depends on the child: what they’re capable of and how fit they are. “The general recommendation is 1 to 2 hours, but take into account the type of exercise, your child’s age and their fitness level. And remember to limit exercise to 30 to 45 minutes if it’s a new sport or type of exercise – and then closely monitor their blood sugar levels, before and after exercising.”

Sarah Hall

What else do I need to know about exercise and diabetes?

It’s important to give the coach a list of symptoms of high and low blood sugar, as well as detailed instructions of what to do if your child goes low. “A child with low blood sugar will be irritable, have a headache and blurry vision, and generally feel horrible.” If your child’s blood sugar is too high, they will feel tired and thirsty.

Dr Claudine Lee, GP

If your child exercises for more than one hour, any time of the day, they should have a protein snack, like full-cream yoghurt or small yoghurt-coated rice cakes, before going to bed. “Sustained energy overnight is crucial, as it prevents hypos between 2 and 4am. “Also, always have a quick-acting sugar snack on hand (fruit juice, sweets or honey) to treat low blood sugar, and make sure the coach knows how to use a glucagon pen in case of emergency.

Andrew Heilbrunn 

Ask the expert: Sarah Hall, Biokineticist Studies have shown that children with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes are generally less physically active than those without: the exact opposite of what the situation should be!

Some advantages of increased physical activity for children with diabetes:

  • Better health
  • More confidence
  • An improved response to insulin and blood sugar control
  • A greater awareness of diabetes and their bodies
  • The prevention of conditions associated with diabetes, like obesity and heart disease
  • Improved weight management

Top Tips

  • Don’t let your child exercise if their blood sugar is too high: over 16mmol/l or too low: under 4mmol/l, or if ketones are present.
  • Make sure your child’s blood sugar is in the target range before exercise, in order to avoid low blood sugar.
  • Talk with your doctor about lowering your child’s insulin dose before exercise, if necessary.
  • Inject insulin before exercise in a site other than the body parts about to be used. For example, if your child will be running, don’t inject in the legs.
  • Watch for symptoms of low blood sugar for 12 hours after exercise, especially if it’s a new kind of exercise.
  • Make sure your child drinks water so they don’t get dehydrated.
  • Choose something fun for you and your child to do together and they’ll learn that getting active is just as enjoyable as relaxing. You could go to dance classes, swim, learn to surf, take up yoga, go on hikes, play tennis or even join a soccer team. There’s even something called laughter yoga if you really want to have a good time.
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