Exercising With Diabetes: Strong, Not Sick

I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Aaron Kowalski in preparation for an article I’m pitching to Runner’s World about diabetes and running. Dr. Kowalski is the Chief Mission Officer at JDRF, has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 30 years, and has run 20 marathons. He started running seriously in 2009, and says his mission is to spread the word that there are no limits for people with diabetes. “It’s a hard disease, but you can do amazing stuff.”

It’s a message we all want to hear, but unfortunately, this message is often not communicated to people with Type 1. It’s far more common for doctors to suggest moderate amounts of exercise to people with Type 1 because of the fear of hypoglycemia (low blood glucose). Dr. Kowalski is working to change that message.

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In January 2017, experts from JDRF published first-of-its-kind guidelines to help people with Type 1 diabetes exercise safely. In a JDRF press release, Dr. Kowalski stated,

“Exercise has tremendous benefits for people with T1D, but it can be hard to predict how it will affect their blood glucose and how they feel during and following physical activity. The lack of reliable information on how to exercise safely has created obstacles for people with T1D who want to maintain a healthy lifestyle. These consensus guidelines, as well as JDRF’s new PEAK program, are breaking down those barriers.”

PEAK is a series of one-day events across the country for people with Type 1, as well as health-care providers, that will help participants understand how to plan for and manage different types of activity safely and successfully with Type 1 diabetes. About a dozen events are on the map for 2017 across the country, and I’m hopeful that more will be planned in 2018.

As someone who has been exercising since I was diagnosed 30 years ago, and who has struggled with managing my blood sugars during exercise, I am thrilled that JDRF is focused on this initiative. There are so many variables when it comes to managing blood sugar levels (with or without exercise), and the more information that’s out there, the better.

Looking back, I think I’m lucky that I had a forward-thinking pediatrician who diagnosed me with Type 1 in 1985. One of the first questions I asked him was if I had to quit the field hockey team. I was a freshman in high school and part of me wanted him to say yes because sitting on the bench would make diabetes visible. If I was going to be stuck with this disease for the rest of my life, at least I could get some sympathy from my friends by sitting on the bench.

“There’s that girl with diabetes” I imagined them whispering.

“No,” my pediatrician said, erasing the fantasy. “Exercise is great for diabetes.” His words wiped out the vision of myself as a sick girl sitting on the sidelines, and I am so grateful for that. Those words pushed me off the sidelines and out the door, and I haven’t looked back. Yes, it’s hard to run when my blood sugar is high or low, but it makes me feel strong, not sick.

Want to learn more about exercise and diabetes? Read “Exercise Myths and Facts” and “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals.”