Swimming for Diabetes

How to take the plunge

Swimming is an excellent physical activity for people with diabetes. Not only is it fun, but as a cardiovascular workout swimming has numerous benefits that make it well-suited for managing diabetes. Aside from access to a pool, it requires little else by way of equipment and if you're already a decent swimmer, you should be able jump right in after getting the green light from your doctor. If you don't know how to swim, you can take lessons or participate in water exercise classes that don't require special skills.

Swimmer training in the pool
Jacob Ammentorp Lund / Getty Images

Benefits

Swimming is an ideal activity for people with diabetes for a host of reasons. In fact, Olympic Hall of Fame swimmer Gary Hall, Jr., who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 25, went on to win 10 swimming medals in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics. But you don't have to win medals to reap the benefits of swimming if you have diabetes.

Improves Cardiovascular Fitness

Many people with diabetes have an increased risk of heart disease. Swimming has been shown to boost cardiovascular health by raising the heart rate to higher-than-normal levels, which in turn helps to lower blood pressure, strengthens the heart muscle, and improves circulation.

Helps with Weight Control

Swimming burns calories, which can facilitate weight loss as well as help to maintain a healthy weight once reached.

For people with diabetes, this is a vital benefit, as research shows weight loss can significantly improve insulin sensitivity.

One study found that participants who lost 5% to 10% of their weight were more likely to have a corresponding 0.5% reduction in A1c levels, in addition to other improved metabolic markers, such as lower blood pressure, and decreases in cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.

Improves Glucose Control

Swimming calls on all the major muscles in the body to keep it afloat. During exercise, muscle cells absorb glucose more efficiently, removing it quickly from the bloodstream.

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

It's important to note that 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 important to monitor your blood sugar at regular intervals.

Warning Signs of Hypoglycemia

If you experience any of these symptoms while swimming, get out of the water and ask a lifeguard or someone else to help you find a snack:

  • Fatigue
  • Shakiness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Hunger
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness

No Impact

Swimming puts virtually no stress on the feet and joints. 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.

Get the OK From Your Doctor

Before you even get your feet wet, check with the provider who helps you manage your diabetes to make sure swimming is a safe activity for you. They will take into account your medications, your current fitness level, your glucose levels, and more. They also can advise you about how to proceed and inform you of any special precautions you should take based on what type of diabetes you have.

Find a Pool

Look for a conveniently located local pool or swim center where the lifeguards are well-trained, such as one operated by the YMCA or Jewish Community Center (JCC). Swim centers may also offer a variety of aquatic programs, so you can round out swimming laps with other types of water exercise, such as water aerobics. If you do not know how to swim, take lessons. Even if you're a good swimmer, consider working with a coach to design a progressive swim schedule.

Build Up Strength and Endurance

Start out slowly, even if it’s just five to 10 minutes per swim session, working up to 45- to 60-minute sessions as you increase your endurance. Don't be discouraged if you find you need to take a short rest every few laps or so—mini-breaks won't interfere with your progress and will allow you to swim for longer periods overall.

Special Considerations

As a person with diabetes, you'll want to bring along more than a towel and goggles to your swim sessions. To prepare:

  1. Have a small snack with protein, fat, and complex carbs before you dive in. Bring cash to buy emergency snacks at the pool if necessary.
  2. To protect your feet, you may want to wear lightweight water shoes in the pool and shower sandals in the locker room, as this reduces the chances of bruising or cutting your feet or of picking up athlete’s foot. Examine your feet after leaving the pool to check for cuts, bruises, or abrasions.
  3. Keep a glucose meter and snacks at poolside in a small plastic bag.
  4. Let the lifeguard know you have diabetes and wear a diabetes medical ID bracelet while in the water.
  5. Check your glucose levels before you get into the water: Your blood sugar should be above 100 mg/dl (or another level agreed upon by your doctor).
  6. Check your glucose levels every hour you're at the pool.
  7. Stay hydrated. You may not realize it, but you still sweat while in the water. Drink at least 8 ounces of water every time you check your glucose.
  8. Keep an eye on your glucose for 12 to 24 hours after swimming.
  9. If you wear an insulin pump, it's unlikely to be waterproof, even if it's water-resistant or splash-proof. Disconnect it and store it in a water-tight case before you swim. Reconnect it every 60 minutes to check your glucose and, if necessary, take a bolus dose of insulin.

Staying Motivated

Once you've established a routine, do whatever you can to stick with it. Have swim dates with someone else to keep yourself accountable or sign up for a swim class to learn a new stroke or an aquatic fitness class to add novelty to your routine. Even treating yourself to a new swimsuit now and then can help prevent boredom.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Updated February 2017.

  2. Mohr M, Nordsborg NB, Lindenskov A, et al. High-intensity intermittent swimming improves cardiovascular health status for women with mild hypertensionBiomed Res Int. 2014;2014:728289. doi:10.1155/2014/728289

  3. Wing RR, Lang W, Wadden TA, et al. Look AHEAD Research Group. Benefits of modest weight loss in improving cardiovascular risk factors in overweight and obese individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2011 Jul 1;34(7):1481-1486. doi:10.2337/dc10-2415

  4. Erickson ML, Jenkins NT, McCully KK. Exercise after you eat: Hitting the postprandial glucose targetFront Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2017;8:228. 2017 Sep 19. doi:10.3389/fendo.2017.00228

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