Diabetes and physical activity

Physical activity helps children have more energy, maintain a healthy weight and feel good about themselves. All children should be encouraged to participate in physical activity and sports. Physical activity also helps insulin work better so for children with diabetes it may help to improve their overall management.

Physical activity:

  • Helps keep the body in good shape and at an ideal weight
  • Helps people feel well and happy and is an important social activity
  • Helps keep the heart rate and blood pressure lower
  • Gives more energy
  • Strengthens muscles
  • Helps get good control of diabetes

Children with diabetes should be encouraged to participate in sports and physical activities and not be limited in what they do. In infants and young children, general activities and play provide adequate exercise. As children grow older they are increasingly active and will often wish to become involved in group or individual sports. Older children and adolescents who have a tendency to be inactive and show no interest in sports should be encouraged to include regular exercise in their daily routine (eg, walking, swimming, riding a bicycle).

Physical activity usually lowers blood glucose levels due to the muscles using more glucose as energy and the body becoming more sensitive to insulin. Physical activity however sometimes increases blood glucose levels due to the effect of other hormones on the body and illness.

Because everyone is different in the way their body will respond to physical activity, it is important to learn a child’s individual response to different types of physical activity through observation. This, along with frequent blood glucose monitoring, will help adjust blood glucose levels and avoid hypoglycaemia.

Most forms of activity lasting more than 30 minutes are likely to involve adjustments in insulin dosing or food. This can depend on many factors, such as the intensity of the activity, when it is done, the type of insulin plan and recent insulin doses.

Long periods of physical activity will usually require a combination of insulin reduction and extra carbohydrate.

Many carbohydrate foods are suitable before and during exercise. Some common ones include:

  • Juice
  • Milk
  • Yoghurt
  • Fruit
  • Biscuits
  • Fruit bar
  • Chocolate bar
  • Sports drinks

Children with diabetes should avoid physical activity if they are unwell or if their blood glucose is high (>250mg/dl/14 mmol/l) and ketones are present. Exercising when blood glucose is high can further raise the levels and make the child feel more unwell.