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Exercise and Sports With Type 1 Diabetes: What You Should Know

Medically reviewed by Angelica Balingit, M.D.
Written by Sarah Winfrey
Posted on May 30, 2024

When active people get diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, they often wonder if they can continue exercising or playing sports. Whether this is a concern for yourself or a child, it’s an important question, because many people enjoy physical activity.

If you’re curious about exercising with type 1 diabetes, here’s what you need to know. That way, you or your child can confidently get back into favorite activities.

Can You Exercise or Play Sports With Type 1 Diabetes?

You absolutely can exercise and play sports with type 1 diabetes. Having the condition shouldn’t affect your ability to participate fully or perform at a high physical level. Some people who live with type 1 diabetes have even competed and won at the Olympics. Learning diabetes management techniques can help you or your child thrive.

In fact, being active may have some positive effects on both type 1 diabetes and overall health. Being active can:

  • Keep you strong
  • Boost your heart and lung health
  • Give you more energy
  • Improve your mental health
  • Raise your confidence
  • Help you maintain a healthy body weight
  • Relax you and relieve stress
  • Enhance your body’s use of insulin

Regular exercise provides these health benefits whether or not you live with type 1 diabetes. If you do, though, you’ll need to take extra steps so that you can exercise or play sports. That way, you’ll stay safe and healthy while doing the activity you love.

Understand How Your Body Responds to Exercise

Different types of exercise have different effects on your body and your type 1 diabetes. It’s important to consider the kind of exercise you want to do so that you can prepare appropriately.

Note that the types and guidelines outlined below may not apply to everybody. If you begin a different type of activity, monitor your blood glucose (sugar) and symptoms carefully so that you can adjust for how your body responds.

In general, when you exercise, your muscles contract and use glucose from your bloodstream. People living with type 1 diabetes need to manually adjust their carbohydrate and insulin levels to keep their blood sugar stable.

Aerobic Exercise and Type 1 Diabetes

Aerobic exercise includes activities that you do for a longer time but at a lower intensity, such as biking, running, and swimming. In most people, aerobic activity makes blood sugar levels drop.

Anaerobic Exercise and Type 1 Diabetes

Anaerobic exercise includes activities you do for a short amount of time or in short bursts of high-intensity with rest in between, such as sprinting, CrossFit, and weightlifting. Activities like these usually cause blood sugar levels to rise.

Mixed Exercise and Type 1 Diabetes

Mixed exercise combines aerobic and anaerobic exercise. This category includes sports that have you moving continually with bursts of more intense activity, like soccer or basketball. These activities are the hardest to manage because they combine factors that can cause blood sugar to fall with others that can cause it to rise.

Consult With Your Doctor

The best thing you can do before you or your child begins an activity is to talk to a health care provider. They’ll be able to help you prepare for a particular activity. Most organized sports require children or teenagers to get a physical before they can participate, giving you an ideal time to ask your health care team how to handle type 1 diabetes with a specific sport or type of exercise.

Talk to a Person in Charge

It can also help to speak with a person who will be coaching you or your child or overseeing the activity. This may be a gym owner or manager, personal trainer, or physical education teacher. Make sure they know what symptoms to keep an eye out for and what to do if they occur, including when to call for emergency help. You should provide written directions to help guide their actions in a high-stress situation.

Prepare Supplies

Make sure that you have everything you need before you exercise or participate in a sport. This may include:

  • Diabetes testing equipment
  • Insulin — Possibly insulin doses for different blood sugar levels
  • Glucagon
  • A carbohydrate snack or drink or glucose tablets
  • Water for hydration

These items should be easily accessible in a gym bag or separate container. If the sport requires travel, the bag should be carried at all times. The coach or trainer should always know where the supplies are and how to use them.

Have a Plan

Work with your doctor to come up with a plan for monitoring glucose levels and keeping them steady during activity. Below are some guidelines that work for many people, but if your health care professional gives you a different plan for diabetes care, always follow that instead.

General recommendations include the following:

  • Test your blood sugar before, during, and after physical activity.
  • Keep track of when you last had insulin and how much.
  • Take action based on your blood sugar level and recent insulin dosages.
  • Know your target blood sugar levels for the kind of exercise you plan to do.
  • Test your urine for ketones if your blood sugar is high.
  • Don’t exercise if ketones are present.

Using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) has been shown to help people track their blood sugar during physical activity. You can set it to alert you if your blood sugar is too high or too low. That way, you don’t have to stop to test. If the CGM works with an insulin pump, you can even get insulin if you need it while exercising.

If you don’t have a CGM, you may need to test quite a bit when you first start to be active. That way, you’ll learn how your body responds to exercise so that you can plan ahead for the future. Over time, you may be able to test less often.

Know What To Look for During Physical Activity

You or your child, as well as a coach or another person present, should know how to identify warning signs during exercise with type 1 diabetes. That way, help can be given to avoid major blood sugar problems.

Symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) include:

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Shakiness or weakness
  • Mental confusion
  • Sweating
  • Sudden hunger
  • Seizures
  • Fainting

Symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) include:

  • Feeling dehydrated or very thirsty despite water intake
  • Having blurry vision
  • Being tiredness or feeling weak
  • Needing to urinate more often than normal

If you or your child experiences these symptoms or someone else notices them, it’s time to take a break and check blood glucose levels. Have a plan for what to do at different levels so there’s never any confusion or second-guessing.

Keep Close Tabs on Blood Sugar After Physical Exertion

Physical activity can affect blood sugar levels for several hours. It’s important to monitor blood sugar levels regularly so your body can continue to get what it needs. If your doctor agrees, eat a postworkout snack that contains slow-acting carbohydrates. These release sugar into the blood slowly and may help regulate levels after a long, hard workout.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myT1Dteam, the social network for people with type 1 diabetes and their loved ones, more than 2,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with type 1 diabetes.

Are you wondering whether it’s safe to exercise or do sports with type 1 diabetes? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on May 30, 2024
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Angelica Balingit, M.D. is a specialist in internal medicine, board certified since 1996. Learn more about her here.
Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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