When Kristen’s parents were given the diagnosis that their daughter, about to turn 4, had Type 1 Diabetes, they were overwhelmed with questions. What is this disease? How can we keep her healthy and safe? Will Kristen be able to maintain a lifestyle similar to other children?
With the help of a diabetes team (including a nutritionist and doctors), Kristen is now 10-years-old and is one of the most outgoing and active children I know. She swims, plays on her school basketball and volleyball teams, and she participates in gymnastics, cheerleading, and horse jumping. She has also met many other children with diabetes through attending diabetes camp, which has helped normalize the disease for her. Kristen is so comfortable with her condition that not only does she speak openly with her classmates about diabetes but they accompany her when she tests her blood sugar levels and takes her insulin.
According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is a disease in which the pancreas does not produce any insulin, a hormone that helps your body to control the level of glucose (sugar) in your blood. Without insulin, glucose builds up in your blood instead of being used for energy.
Being active is an important component in anyone’s life, but for those with T1D exercise is important in maintaining cardiovascular health and lowering blood glucose levels.
Many famous athletes with T1D have had very successful careers
- Max Domi of the London Knights helped lead the Canadian Men’s National Junior Ice Hockey team to gold this past January
- Bobby Clarke played 15 years in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers
- Jay Cutler is an award-winning quarterback for the Chicago Bears
- Michelle McGann is an 8-time winner on the LPGA tour
- Missy Foy is an elite marathon runner who has been ranked in the top 10 in the world at the 80 kms distance
- Chris Jarvis is an award-winning Canadian Olympic rower
Being active with T1D, though, comes with unique challenges. But having T1D does not mean your child’s active lifestyle cannot lead to great sporting success (see sidebar above for successful athletes living with T1D).
Marian Flannery is the mother of four sons and a super-active outdoors woman who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes over 20 years ago. Marian is a former occupational therapist who now works as a life coach with people with diabetes. With her help, we’ve put together an important game plan for when your T1D child is active or playing sports.
You and your child may not be completely at ease with the idea of exercise and the challenges it may pose. Spend some time with your child to identify what sports they really like and feel comfortable participating in. Some activities may present unique challenges such as swimming with an insulin pump however through dialogue and consultation with the experts, any activity and diabetes can be mastered. Remember your children are in it for the long haul. Play around, experiment and have fun!
Recognize that exercising can decrease or increase sugar levels
It’s important to watch for symptoms of low AND high sugar levels while being active. Symptoms of low sugar can include sweating, light-headedness, weakness, shakiness, hunger, confusion and/or headaches. Choose your “weapon” (a.k.a. simple sugar), to fend off low sugar. Having a simple sugar that works for your child is important to always have close by or literally on hand or in pocket. Stick to this one item for consistency. If a juice box does the trick for your child, then keep to that. Symptoms of high blood sugar can include excessive thirst, fatigue, weakness and blurry vision. Always have water and insulin on hand.
Check and check again
Have your child check their sugars before, during and after activity. It’s vital that your child’s blood sugar levels are within normal range before they start to exercise. Remember that your child’s sugar can drop even hours after they have finished their activity so it’s important to keep a close eye on their blood sugar levels.
Every person with diabetes has unique needs. Once you and your child have identified theirs, communicate them with their coach. Ensure the coach is aware of the symptoms that might indicate your child is experiencing low or high blood sugar levels and what they can do to help. While there is no need to make a formal speech to the whole team about your child’s diabetes, choosing one or two teammates to be made aware will give comfort and safety to both you and your child. Remember that knowledge and education are lifelong friends! Another way to communicate your child’s condition — not just during sports but at all times — is for them to wear an ID bracelet that alerts others to their diabetes. Alert bracelets come in so many cool styles that glow in the dark or have beads or sports symbols, etc. that most kids should be able to find one they enjoy wearing.
A diagnosis of T1D is no reason to stop developing a child’s physical literacy skills or being active with them. Going for bike rides as a family, walking the dog, playing at the park with friends, or joining a team are all great ways to keep all children moving. Coaches and teammates should keep in mind that a child with T1D can participate in as many sports as any other child. Being aware of signs of low or high blood sugar can help provide one more level of assurance to both the child and their parents.