Swimming for Diabetes: How to Take the Plunge

A Great Exercise for Diabetes

Swimming is a good activity for diabetics.
Swimming is a good activity for diabetics. Tina Stallard/Getty Images

Swimming is a great physical activity for people with diabetes. Not only is it fun, it has several benefits that make it well suited for a diabetes management program. Wondering whether diabetes prevents swimmers from achieving their potential?

Gary Hall Jr. was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 25. Thanks to careful management of his condition and great determination, he went on to win eight swimming medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

There’s no guarantee that every person with diabetes will win medals for swimming—but successfully managing diabetes is reward enough.

Benefits of Swimming for People with Diabetes

Swimming improves cardiovascular fitness. This is very important because people with diabetes have higher risks than others for heart disease. Swimming also burns calories and can help control weight, which is also important for people with diabetes.

Swimming strengthens all the major muscles in the body, which is valuable in controlling diabetes. When exercising, muscle cells more efficiently absorb blood sugar. This is how exercising lowers blood sugar levels.

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

Start with as much activity as possible, even if it’s just 5-to-10 minutes per session. Try to work up to 45-to-60 minutes. Resting between 10-to-15 minute sessions is fine.

There are other benefits as well:

  • It’s less stressful on one’s feet 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.
  • 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.
  • It is usually supervised by a lifeguard, who can provide help if you encounter difficulties.

Getting the Go-ahead From a Health-Care Provider

First, it’s important for a person with diabetes to get the OK from a healthcare provider for any new exercise program to make sure that the patient is fit enough to increase his or her activity levels. The health care specialist will also want to inform you of special precautions to take based on what type of diabetes you have. Other factors to consider include medications being taken, your current fitness state, glucose levels and other issues.

Preparing to Swim

Now it’s time to find a place to swim. Local pools or swim centers, such as those operated by the YMCA or JCC, are excellent choices. The lifeguards are well trained, and many such facilities offer a variety of aquatic programs. Any pool with lifeguards is fine. However, it 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 and deliver very similar benefits. A patient should check with his or her health care provider first and let the instructor know about any special needs.

Swimming with Diabetes: Special Considerations

  • Before getting in the water, tell the lifeguard you have diabetes.
  • Wear a diabetes ID bracelet while in the water.
  • 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. People with diabetes should examine their feet after leaving the pool to check for cuts, bruises or abrasions.
  • 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 health care provider before beginning a swimming program.

Sticking with It: A Partner or Class May Help

Any exercise program is easier to stick if a partner is involved. Mutual motivation makes it easier to stay committed. Let your exercise buddy knows about your special needs and precautions with diabetes.

Another way to increase the odds of sticking with a regular schedule is to take a class. Doing so is a great way to meet new people, as well as commit to a regular schedule and try new things, such as water aerobics. All of these can help keep you motivated.

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