Only one in three children are physically active every day, according to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. This is alarming for all children, but is particularly problematic for kids with diabetes. Unfortunately, many parents are undereducated about the importance of physical exercise for young children with diabetes. Worries about blood glucose fluctuations can prevent some parents from encouraging their children to get the exercise they need.
Why Exercise Is Important for Kids With Diabetes
Children with diabetes have difficulty regulating their blood sugar levels. The body may be insensitive to insulin or unable to produce it. Insulin is responsible for regulating blood glucose levels, telling cells to use free sugars that are circulating through the blood stream. Keeping blood glucose levels within a narrow range is associated with health and the best outcomes for kids with diabetes.
Exercise is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, and that is no different for children with diabetes. One of the biggest benefits of physical activity is that it can promote healthier blood glucose regulation. Children with diabetes who engage in frequent physical activity are less likely to have dramatic swings in their blood sugar levels. Exercise makes the body more sensitive to insulin, meaning that your child does not need as much of the hormone to properly process carbohydrates.
Plus, getting enough physical activity promotes a healthy body weight, increases lean muscle mass, improves bone strength and boosts energy. Having a healthy body weight is associated with significantly fewer diabetic complications, such as cardiovascular disease, neuropathy, kidney problems or even Alzheimer’s disease. These complications often do not arise until later in life. Even so, starting healthy exercise habits in childhood will ensure that your child’s risk of these conditions is lower.
Recommendations for Physical Activity
The American Diabetes Association recommends engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise every week. That means your child should be physically active for at least 30 minutes, five days per week. Recess and after-school activities count, so make sure you include them in your target. For children around ages 4 to 10, exercise might include playing actively at the local park, jogging, walking briskly, water activities or swimming (once your child is comfortable in the water), playing a sport or biking.
Challenges Facing Kids With Diabetes Who Are Beginning to Exercise
Parents often say that they want to encourage their child to exercise, but they are not sure how it will affect their blood glucose levels. This is a valid concern, as exercise can certainly impact blood sugar levels, depending on the following factors:
- Starting blood glucose levels before beginning a particular activity
- Physical intensity of the activity (e.g., running will have a greater effect than walking for an equivalent amount of time)
- Length of time that your child is active
- Timing of insulin dosages
Many kids with diabetes experience a drop in blood sugar levels after exercising. The best way to approach a new activity is to test, test, test! Only with frequent testing and blood glucose monitoring can you understand the effects of exercise on your child’s diabetes.
Strategies to Help Your Child Increase Exercise
Like any child, a kid with diabetes must be cautious before beginning new activities. Start slowly, perhaps with walks around the block or a recreational baseball game during the summer. Test your child’s blood sugar before, during and following the activity. This will give you a sense of how much the exercise affects his or her ability to manage diabetes appropriately.
Then, it is time to engage in some trial and error. If you find that exercise significantly drops your child’s blood glucose levels, lower his or her insulin dose or give your child some extra carbs before exercising. Always make sure you pack juice or glucose tabs to quickly increase blood sugar if it dips too low. Eating a small snack before and after exercising helps many people with diabetes stay in a healthy blood sugar range. Ensure you have access to your testing supplies and insulin in case blood sugar levels spike too high.