Kolkata-based Nandu Das (58) follows a strict routine to manage diabetes since 18 years of his diagnosis. Apart from avoiding stress, he ensures to get up every day at 4.30 am for a 15-minute swim at a lake near his house. He says, “Even during rains or winter, I have been following this routine of exercise for my diabetes management diligently. I haven’t skipped swimming and my 15-minute walk even for a single day all these years.” He is now managing fasting sugar levels at 96 mg/dL and post prandial at 112 mg/dL. They, however, spike a little during festivals, he admits.
Swimming regularly can be of great benefit for people with diabetes, say experts. It is not just one of the best workouts for overall fitness and health, but also for regulating blood glucose levels.
Is swimming safe for people with diabetes?
Experts say swimming is safe and a good exercise for people with diabetes. Dr Manjunath Malige, director – Diabetes & Endocrinology, Sakra World Hospital, Bangalore, says, “Swimming helps manage diabetes like any other exercise. It utilises the glucose in the body and helps reduce insulin resistance. As a result of which, the sugar levels will come down, helping manage diabetes.”
But it is always recommended that one consumes a light snack before they start swimming, particularly those who are on insulin. It will help ensure that the sugar levels don’t drop while swimming, and there are no untoward incidents or problems in the swimming pool. Dr Malige suggests one to have a couple of biscuits or a banana, about 30 minutes before the planned swimming session. He adds the blood sugar should be anywhere between 130 and 170 mg/dL before and after swimming. If the sugar levels are on the lower side, say 100 to 120 mg/dL, he says it is then better to have a snack before going for the swim.
Why does swimming lower blood sugar?
Olympic medallist Gary Hall Jr says in an earlier interview with Happiest Health that he would monitor his sugar levels constantly and ensure to consume the right amount of carbs before swimming to avoid the risk of hypoglycemia while in water. Hall Jr was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1999, a year before the Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Nihar Ameen, a Dronacharya awardee and head coach, Dolphin Aquatics, Bangalore, says, “If you are a high-performance athlete, you need to be careful as your blood sugar levels might drop drastically. High intensity workout burns carbs. If you are into low intensity swimming, it is quite safe as it burns more fat.”
According to him, swimming is the best exercise that one can get. “It utilises every single muscle in the body, which helps in better glucose metabolism,” he adds.
Swimming can help prevent and delay diabetes complications. It can also help reduce weight, which in turn lowers the risk of diabetes and also manages glucose levels better. Pradeep Kumar, head coach, Aqua Nation Swimming Academy, Dubai, says that an hour of swimming can help burn around 300 calories and high intensity swimming like in competitions, can help burn over 400-450 calories in an hour. Also a Dronacharya awardee and the National Swimming Coach of India, Kumar adds, “One should, however, know the signs of hypoglycemia so that they can seek help or get out of the pool in case the sugar drops low. It is also advised to keep some snacks handy. Otherwise, they can do regular swimming and all types of strokes like breast and freestyle strokes,” he says.
Benefits of swimming for people with diabetes
Though it is also good to help manage diabetes complications like neuropathy, it is important to first get medical advice before starting swimming, say coaches. Dr Malige says, “They can swim as long as they don’t have open wounds. If they do, then we don’t advise them to swim because the wound can get infected and can cause problems. Again, if a person with diabetes has cardiac issues, then they have to consult their cardiologist to see whether it’s safe for them to swim.”
A study published in BMC Sports Science, Medicine, and Rehabilitation in 2021 states that people with Type 2 diabetes who practice swimming regularly have a significant positive effect on their cholesterol levels, BMI, and body fat percentage compared to those who never participated in swimming sessions. Also, regular swimming exercises improve metabolism rates and boosts mood, which further helps people with diabetes management.
However, experts say it is also important to be consistent. Arjun JP, a professional swimming coach in Bangalore, adds many learn swimming for their personal goals like weight loss and better glucose management. However, they discontinue once they reach their targets. “Just learning how to swim won’t help. One needs to continue training to help improve their health in the long run,” he says.
Checklist for people with diabetes for swimming
1.Consult a physician
Seek advice from a physician before signing up for swimming. They can advise if it is a safe exercise for you and what are the precautions you need to take.
2. Carry your glucometer
Check the glucose levels before and after the swim. Ensure the sugar levels are around 130 to 170 mg/dL during both times.
3. Take a bite
Experts recommend a small snack like a banana or some biscuits at least 30 minutes before going to swim, especially if you are insulin dependent. If the blood sugar is a bit on the lower side, say about 100-110 mg/dL, it’s better to take a bite.
4. Start slow
Start slow and gradually increase the intensity and duration of the workout under expert supervision. Inform the lifeguard and coach that you are diabetic. If all is well, one can swim up to 45 minutes at a stretch, say experts.
5. Ensure safety
Wear your shower sandals around the pool and locker rooms to avoid the risk of bruises and athlete’s foot.
- Swimming is safe and a good exercise for people with diabetes, say experts.
- It not only helps regulate blood glucose levels but also improves cholesterol, emotional health and heart health.
- It helps delay, prevent and manage diabetes complications like diabetic neuropathy.
- However, it is important to consult a doctor before starting swimming exercises.
- Experts advise constant monitoring of sugar levels and consuming a light snack before swimming, especially if you are insulin dependent.