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.
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.”
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.
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
- 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.
“This year I have a diabetic child in my class and I don’t really know what to do. I want to make him feel supported but I also don’t want to make a big fuss about the fact that he’s diabetic – he seems to be managing it very well… What do you suggest?” Linda Nkosi.
I think it’s great that you want to lend support to your learner who has diabetes. However, being in charge of children with diabetes can be a challenge unless you know about the condition – it’s a good start for you to get more information on diabetes.
Children with diabetes often feel isolated and alone. Having to test your blood sugar several times a day, keep tabs on what you eat, and give yourself insulin shots or other medicine is enough to make anyone feel self-conscious and different.
If he is willing to do an awareness project with you, it could be very helpful for the whole class. It’s very important to first talk this idea through with him and his parents, though – some people prefer to hide their diabetes and pretend that it doesn’t exist. If you tackle this project in an exciting way, the child will feel involved and the other children in his class will enjoy the topic and then, like children do, just move on to something else. Children are like that. They soon move on, but the message of hypos, testing and shots will be stored in their memory banks.
Remember that this child must always be treated like his classmates. Don’t make exceptions. Always remember, he is a child first. He has diabetes, but that doesn’t give him more or less rights than the child next to him.
Like everyone else, kids with diabetes get along better with a little help from their friends. What a lucky person he is to have a supportive teacher like you!
– Jeannie Berg, Diabetes Educator
Claire Barnardo gives us 14 ways having children in your life makes you happier all round… (even if they’re not your own… And even if it’s not all the time!)
- Be young again
Spending time with kids allows you to relive your youth again: everything you did and didn’t get to do. Playing with toys, reading your favourite children’s books and playing at make-believe are all some of the day-to-day activities with a child.
- Keep fit
Have you spent an afternoon with a two-year-old recently? It’s one quick and sure way to get in shape! They will have you running around in no time.
- Laugh aloud!
Children say the funniest things all the time. They can also be quite profound and real in understanding the world. It’s cute, amusing and special all at once.
- Social butterfly
You get to meet a whole new group of friends through play dates, school, the library, and family time at parks. Being a parent is a unifying experience.
- New view
You can experience the world through new eyes and fall in love with life all over again. There are so many first experiences that you can share with a child. And this time around you get to buy the toys you really want…
- All better
A child can change the worst of adult days into something bright just by saying one sentence, or giving one little hug.
- Get creative
Kids are at their creative height the younger they are, so you can flex your creativity too. Play-doh, paint, dancing, singing, storytelling… The possibilities are endless.
Kids enjoy life in full doses. Whether it’s exploring the garden or baking, building tents or drawing, it’s all one big adventure when you’re around a little one.
Looking after a child gives you a greater sense of direction and purpose in life. You are able to be your best self around them.
They also remind you about what’s really important in life… and it’s not the laundry, or the dishes.
- Deep answers
Children are inquisitive and won’t settle for a simple explanation. They test your general knowledge and understanding constantly, which is a great way to keep your mind active.
Spending time with a child is one sure way to refine your patience and your ability to do things slowly and one at a time.
In our busy world of screens and meetings, it is a great joy to be able to focus on someone as they learn their way in the world.
- Love, love, love
Children really do make your heart grow bigger and more beautiful. They rub off a kind of joy that makes you smile more easily and look forward to things you might have taken for granted.
Kids in need of quality time
If you don’t have your own children, don’t worry: there are plenty who still need you. Why not volunteer at a children’s home, hospital or as a kangaroo carer and give back to a little person?