Loving exercise with diabetes

I have always loved sport, and in particular football. As a child in England, I would spend most of my time kicking a football and I have never lost the enthusiasm for the game.  At 46, I still play up to three times a week and I consider myself lucky to be in Singapore where the facilities are excellent (once you get used to the heat of course).

Me age 11!

Me age 11!

The game is incredibly popular here and I am always so surprised when I see so many people playing on the Futsal pitches at midnight and even early in the morning!  Sometimes, it’s even impossible to find a pitch available.

The other exercise I enjoy is running and this is something I also do to de-stress; there is nothing like a run to forget about the worries of the day. Once again, I am not alone in loving running in Singapore; so many people seem to be keen to pound the streets!

Diabetic Steve Redgrave - winner of 5 Olympic gold rowing medals

Diabetic Steve Redgrave – winner of 5 Olympic gold rowing medals

When I was diagnosed with diabetes, I wondered whether I would need to reduce the amount I exercise because of how my blood sugar might react. 10 years on and I have learnt a lot about exercise and diabetes, and now I am even more active than when I was first diagnosed.

Of course, people with or without diabetes are encouraged to exercise regularly for the sake of good health. For diabetics though, there are a few additional considerations.  If you are taking medication – it’s important to know what will happen to your blood sugar.  You don’t want to be out on a long run and realize that your blood sugar is low and not be prepared!

I have noticed with my diabetes two quite different reactions to exercise. Firstly for non-competitive sports, for example a run or a jog, my blood sugar over time will get lower.  For this reason, I always carry some sweets or glucose with me to take when needed.  Usually this is not an issue; it’s quite a slow lowering of blood sugar and I will always sense when I need to eat something.  So running is usually predictable and straightforward for me.

On the other hand, playing a sport competitively has the opposite reaction. I find that during a game of football my blood sugar will rise; sometimes by quite a lot.  By reading and researching, I have learnt that this is because surges of adrenalin cause the liver to release extra sugar into the blood stream.

This increased blood sugar lasts for a while after the match, but will fall quickly a few hours later.  This reaction is called delayed onset hypoglycemia. This is caused by muscles needing to replenish their energy and by their enhanced sensitivity to insulin caused by the exercise.  Here’s a list of activities that might cause an increase in blood sugar in diabetics:

Garry Mabbutt (England and Tottenham) football player

– Weight lifting (particularly when using high weight and low reps)

– Sports that involve intermittent “bursts” of activity like baseball or golf

– Sprints in events such as running, swimming and rowing

– Events where performance is being judged, such as gymnastics or figure skating

– Sports activities in which winning is the primary objective

Once you notice the patterns, there are of course ways to deal with these issues. Before a run, I will ensure I have a snack and of course take sweets with me in case of low blood sugars.  With football, and because I am on insulin, I have learnt to adjust my doses before I play.  As with a lot of things you learn with diabetes, much of this is trial and error.  I still make mistakes, but most of the time, I get it right.

The benefits of the exercise far outweigh the difficulties, in my opinion. Don’t be put off and remember that many diabetics have been very successful sports people.  Here’s a link with many examples:


If you haven’t exercised for a while and are embarking on something new, it will make sense to start slowly and discuss first with your specialist. I do hope though that like me, you can enjoy sport and not let diabetes be an excuse! Quite the opposite, it can be a successful part of your treatment!

Exercise can take on many different forms depending on your fitness and age and overall health.  There is just as much to be said for a regular brisk walk, gardening or whatever you are most able to do.  The key is to do it regularly and enjoy it!