Swimming for Diabetes: How to Take the Plunge

A great, low-impact cardio exercise for diabetes

Underwater shot of fit swimmer training in the pool


Jacob Ammentorp Lund/Getty Images

 

Swimming is a great physical activity for anyone, but especially for people with diabetes. Not only is it fun, but swimming has numerous benefits that make it well-suited for a diabetes management program, including improved glucose control and better cardiovascular fitness. Dive into the advantages, special considerations and ways to stay motivated, below.

Benefits of Swimming for People with Diabetes

Swimming is an ideal endeavor for people with diabetes, as it reduces pressure on the body and joints and may actually improve glucose control. In fact, Olympic Hall of Fame swimmer Gary Hall, Jr. was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 25 and went on to win ten swimming medals in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics.

Improves Cardiovascular Fitness

Swimming has been shown to boost cardiovascular health, as the exercise raises the heart rate to higher-than-normal levels, which helps reduce blood pressure, strengthens the heart, and improves circulation. As many people with diabetes have a higher risk of heart disease, these benefits can prove very useful.

Swimming also torches calories and can help control weight, which is helpful for those looking to lose a few pounds—weight loss can significantly improve insulin sensitivity.

Improves Glucose Control

Swimming strengthens all the major muscles as they work to keep your body afloat. When exercising, muscle cells absorb glucose more efficiently, removing it quickly from the bloodstream. This is how exercising lowers blood sugar levels.

Note also that exercise can reduce glucose levels too drastically if you're not careful—be sure to know the signs of hypoglycemia and seek help if need be.

The glucose control benefits from exercise can last for hours—or sometimes days—but they are not permanent. This is why getting regular exercise is more important for people with diabetes than working out more intensely but less frequently.

Reduces Stress and Impact

Low-intensity exercise such as swimming has been shown to benefit people with type 2 diabetes. It relieves the pressure of gravity on the body, which helps prevent joint injuries for people who have arthritis or are overweight.

Swimming is also less stressful on one’s feet and joints than many other forms of exercise. This is important because reduced blood flow in the small blood vessels of the extremities is common among people with diabetes, making foot injuries such as cuts or blisters slow to heal and prone to infection.

Getting Started

There are a few steps to take before you dive in.

Seek out Approval From Your Healthcare Provider

Whether you have diabetes or not, it's important to get an OK from your healthcare provider for any new exercise program to make sure you are fit enough to increase your activity levels. Factors to consider include medications being taken, your current fitness state, glucose levels, and other issues. Your healthcare specialist should also be able to inform you of any special precautions to take based on what type of diabetes you have.

Preparing to Swim

Seek out conveniently located local pools or swim centers, such as those operated by the YMCA or JCC, where the lifeguards are well-trained. Swim centers may also offer a variety of aquatic programs. Any pool with lifeguards is fine, however.

It also may be worthwhile to take a swimming class, which can help a beginner or intermediate swimmer develop a smooth, easy stroke that can be sustained for half an hour or more. Look into water aerobics classes. These classes are led by trained instructors, require no swimming but deliver very similar benefits. Just be sure to let the instructor know about any special needs.

Building Up Strength and Endurance

Start out slowly, even if it’s just 5 to 10 minutes per swim session, then try to work up to 45- to 60-minute sessions as you increase your endurance. Also, know that taking short rests between sessions can help you recover some energy to keep going.

Your Swimming Checklist

Here's a handy diabetes safety checklist to follow before you embark:

  1. Before swimming, have a small snack with protein, fat, and complex carbs.
  2. Check your glucose levels before entering the water: blood sugar should be above 100 mg/dl, or another level agreed upon by your doctor.
  3. Continue to check your glucose levels every hour you're at the pool.
  4. Stay hydrated. You may not realize you're sweating as you're in the water, but it's key to rehydrate with fluids. Drink at least 8 ounces of water every time you check your glucose.
  5. Bring cash to buy emergency snacks if necessary.
  6. Keep an eye on your glucose for 12 to 24 hours after exercise.

Swimming With Diabetes: Special Considerations

Your swimming should be supervised by a lifeguard, who can provide help if you encounter difficulties, but be aware of several factors before you jump in.

Notify the Lifeguard

Before getting in the water, tell the lifeguard you have diabetes, and wear a diabetes medical ID bracelet while in the water. A lifeguard will need to administer treatment for hypoglycemia if necessary, so it's important that he or she is aware of your condition.

Know the Signs of Hypoglycemia

Swimming for an extended period of time may bring on hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. The tired feeling brought on by exercising can feel like hypoglycemia, so it’s very important to monitor blood sugar at regular intervals.

Bring along glucose gel, tablets, snacks or whatever a health care provider recommends using when blood sugar drops. Keep a glucose meter and snacks at poolside in a small plastic bag.

If you wear an insulin pump, consult your healthcare provider before beginning a swimming program.

Keep Your Feet Safe

Make sure to wear shower sandals or other footwear around the pool and in the locker room. This reduces the chances of bruising or cutting your feet or of picking up athlete’s foot. You may also want to wear lightweight water shoes while in the pool, too. Always be sure to examine your feet after leaving the pool to check for any possible cuts, bruises, or abrasions, and get them treated immediately.

Staying Motivated

Now that you've got your action items down, keep your progress going! Any exercise program is easier to maintain if a friend is involved. Mutual motivation makes it easier to stay committed—you can set up a regularly scheduled swimming date to meet at the pool. Let your exercise buddy know about your special needs and precautions with diabetes.

Another way to increase the likelihood of sustaining your swimming program is to sign up for a class. Exercise classes of any kind are a great way to meet new people, and they'll help you commit to a regular schedule and try new forms of water exercise, too, such as water aerobics.

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