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Heart Healthy Sports for People With Diabetes

May 14, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

It’s ancient knowledge that sports are good for you. Chinese history includes mention of sporting events as a way to keep fit many thousands of years ago, and the knowledge appears over and over throughout the world’s histories and civilizations. It’s also well known that aerobic activity–anything that increases blood flow and oxygen exchange–can have long-term benefits to your overall cardiovascular health. 


For many this is welcome news, offering a way to look after their health and enjoy the game at the same time. For roughly fifteen percent of the world’s population, though, the outlook is less bright; these people suffer from diabetes, and the internal chemical imbalance that sporting events would cause can have effects far worse than simply needing a shower.

Risk Factors For Heart Disease

Risk Factors For Heart Disease

As the body’s metabolism begins to adjust to supply the greater cellular demand for ATP to power muscle activity, sugars and lipids move faster through the digestive system and bloodstream. For most, this causes the unpleasant sensation of burning muscles and flushed skin; for someone with diabetes who is unable to naturally return to homeostasis, this can result in a critical glucose imbalance. 


Aside from the chemical elements, people with diabetes are also likely to suffer a certain amount of limb and joint pain from unusual blood pressure. This can lead to cramps and pricking feelings that make traditional or competitive sports challenging at best. People with diabetes are best advised to select a sport that allows them to set their own pace; it should be something that stimulates the heart and lungs without stressing the muscles or skeleton.

Heart Disease Prevention

Heart Disease Prevention

When all factors are considered together, one of the best choices for someone with diabetes looking to stay in shape is swimming. Although swimming is known to exercise nearly every muscle in the body, not having to brace against any rigid surfaces means that the soft tissues of the skeletal muscles and blood vessels are never unduly compressed, keeping the accompanying pain at bay. Similar effects can be found in running or cycling, where a smooth repetitive motion can be used to avoid sudden changes in blood flow. 


In more recent years, advances in glucose supplements and physiotherapy have made it possible for people with diabetes to hit the court or field along with everyone else, although certain careful measures should be followed. Stretching and warming up are particularly important, as they prime the body for exertion and bring blood to muscles where it will be needed. Depending on the exact severity of diabetes involved, it may be necessary to take a glucose regulator dose of medication before the game begins to maintain blood sugar balance.

Ideal Types of Exercise

Ideal Types of Exercise

With these simple precautions in place, people with diabetes can benefit from the same cardio-intensive sports as anyone and will often reap greater benefits as well. Glycogen levels drop, reducing the amount of sugars and fats in your system, and metabolism is stimulated to more effectively process nutrients.


Lastly, exercise has been proven to make you feel good. This includes both the hormone release it causes, which really does have a positive effect on the body, and also the satisfaction from knowing that you’re looking after yourself.

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