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The truth about exercise and type 1 diabetes

The truth about exercise and type 1 diabetes
Photo: The truth about exercise and type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a condition that continues to cause confusion among both the general public, and those who have received a diagnosis. 

Those who live with the daily affects of diabetes, live in a constant state of balance management, as they try to navigate the impact of the condition, through both diet and exercise.

There is no known cause of either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, and there is currently no cure, despite continuous and extensive research.  Put simply though, type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition causing the pancreas to produce little or no insulin.

Treatment focuses on managing blood sugar levels with insulin, diet and lifestyle to prevent complications.

While there are multiple misconceptions when it comes to diabetes management, one of the biggest areas of confusion is exercise. 
We know regular exercise in children is important for optimal physical and psychological development. However, we also know that exercise can cause a drop in the blood sugar levels of people with diabetes, potentially leading to hypoglycaemia.

The fear of hypoglycaemia can lead some children with diabetes to avoid exercise altogether, however Practicing Accredited Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist, Kate Save, says ceasing exercise is not the answer, but rather knowing how to respond to these changes.

“Diabetes and exercise management is complex,” says Ms Save.

“Each child’s blood sugar levels will react to exercise differently.”

Ms Save says it’s important to check blood sugar levels before, during and after exercise to understand how they are affected.

“With good planning and awareness children can participate in exercising and sport safely

“Some strategies include checking blood sugar is in the target range before exercise, having a glucose solution or easily digested carbohydrate snack on hand and ensuring your child’s coach understands the symptoms of low blood sugar.”

For Beck Davis, whose teenage daughter lives with type 1 diabetes, it was important to find a balance between acknowledging her daughter’s fears, and gently encouraging an active lifestyle. 

“Exercise for type 1s requires very careful management, but should be encouraged in the same way that it is for non-diabetics,” says Ms Davis.

“We have type 1 friends who are accomplished athletes, and their amazing advocacy paves the way for all T1Ds to know that they can, and should, embrace an active lifestyle.

“When Mackenzie was a lot younger, she voiced her concerns about participating in high intensity sport, for fear of hypoglycaemia, so we never pushed her - we respected that it would be scary for her.

“When she was 10, she started playing netball and the team environment was wonderful for her confidence and belief in herself.

“Her teammates all knew what to look out for and how to help, if needed.

“That process of confronting her fears, but knowing she was well supported, has allowed her to really embrace sport and exercise.

“She is a strong, fit and healthy young woman.”

According to Ms Davis, many people just don’t understand the myriad factors that need to be considered when managing type 1 diabetes, which can lead to confusion and misinformation.

“Food, exercise, stress, heat, metabolism, illness, hormones - they all play their part and it can be incredibly overwhelming," she says. 

“For example, the effects of exercise can be seen on blood sugar levels anywhere up to 24 hours post-activity, and even the tiniest cut or insect bite can create a very minor infection which wreaks havoc with blood sugars.

“Her levels can become difficult to manage through heatwaves, school assessment, growth spurts, and an absolute plethora of things beyond anyone’s control.”

Making an appointment with an exercise physiologist is a great way for those living with type 1 diabetes to arm themselves with the necessary information to exercise safely.

“Physical activity is important for a healthy lifestyle and psychological well-being and should not be avoided in children with type 1 diabetes,” says Ms Save.

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.