Sports used to be a big part of Jonathan Tengi’s life. The 14-year-old from Allendale, NJ, played soccer, basketball and baseball, and swam on a team during the summer. Then Jonathan was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. His active schedule came to a complete halt — he even missed the last soccer match of the season.
Three weeks later, with his blood sugar levels under better control and a diabetes management plan in place, Jonathan was back in the game again, in time for basketball season. He was hitting his stride, learning to live with diabetes — something he says he couldn’t have done without his teammates.
“Playing sports was a huge help physically and mentally, because when I was diagnosed, it threw everything off. Being able to get back into sports really helped me keep my mind off my diabetes and feel more normal,” he says.
Diabetes experts agree: Physical activity is vital to staying healthy for all kids, including those with type 1 diabetes. Here’s why and what you need to know to even the playing field for your child.
Strong Minds and Bodies
Exercise helps kids concentrate in school. It’s good for their hearts, for building muscles, and for controlling weight and stress. The optimal amount of exercise for children with type 1 diabetes — about an hour per day — isn’t any different than for other children, says Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and Professor of Exercise Science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.
“A chronic disease can have a negative influence on how children view themselves, but being physically active may help counteract that by increasing self-confidence,” Colberg says.
Participating in team sports had an added bonus: It gave Jonathan a chance to educate his friends about his diabetes. His friends could get help if they saw Jonathan experiencing signs of low blood sugar, such as dizziness, confusion, excessive sweating, or weakness.
“Most of my friends were playing sports with me, so they were able to learn and tell other friends and teammates about it, and by word-of-mouth, it helped everyone,” Jonathan says.
Your child doesn’t have to be on a team to be physically fit, though. Playing tag, riding bikes, or walking are great ways to work in some daily exercise. Keep it interesting by suggesting new hobbies from time-to-time, such as hiking, karate, or hip-hop dancing.
“Learning skills and doing a new activity helps kids develop,” Colberg says. “The more things they learn, the more well-rounded they become.”
Your Game Plan
TALK ABOUT DIABETES. Because the length and intensity of exercise can affect blood sugar levels, coaches and teachers need to know how to handle an episode of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). It can be helpful if teammates are aware as well. Talk with your child’s diabetes care team before he or she starts any new exercise program. It’s important to monitor how physical activity affects blood sugar; adjustments to food and insulin may be necessary.
KEEP SNACKS HANDY. Keep a variety of snacks available that your child likes, such as an energy bar, fresh fruit, yogurt, or cheese and crackers. Depending on the type and duration of the sport, you may want to carry food for before, during, or after the activity.
ROOT, ROOT, ROOT! As for Jonathan, he continues to play several sports and to root for his favorite team, the New York Mets. “They were really bad last year, but they’re picking themselves up, just like I had to do with my diabetes, and I hope the same good things happen for them,” he says.
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.