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Swimming: A Good Exercise Option for People with Diabetes

We all know the importance of exercise in our daily lives as a person with diabetes. Swimming may well be the perfect exercise for diabetics, whether you have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes.  For everyone with diabetes, swimming can keep us active and healthy.

Swimming does not jar your joints like basketball, jogging, or tennis. Unlike golf and bowling, it keeps you moving for a length of time, rather than having you expend energy and then rest. This is important for cardiovascular fitness in that it allows one to pump blood and oxygen more efficiently.

Swimming also exercises both upper and lower body muscles at the same time, something that some other sports do not do, and it burns 350 to 420 calories per hour. It is especially good for those who have numbness or lack of feeling of the feet (from diabetic neuropathy) as it will do no harm.

As with other exercises we’ve been touting, swimming makes you feel good by producing endorphins.

Finally, regular exercise like swimming will help tone you, will use up calories so that you can lose weight, help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and in the process of becoming fit, help you control your diabetes.  All these are very good reasons to try swimming when you have diabetes.

Health Benefits of Swimming

The good thing about exercising in water is that just about anyone can do it. Old or young, fit or not so fit, in rehab or strong...just being in the water is calming, mentally and physically.

Even people who are not in such good shape will benefit.

For example, those with arthritis can swim because it places no extra stress on knees, elbows, or other parts of the body affected by the disease.

It is an excellent cross-trainer for those of you who do other forms of exercise, allowing all muscle groups to be lengthened and strengthened.

In the water, your body weight is completely supported so you are less likely to suffer the common injuries people sustain on land. Since you are less likely to get hurt, it’s easier to set more rigorous goals.

For maximum benefit from swimming, you should do it at least three times a week for at least 10 minutes each time—the longer the better.

But don’t over do at the beginning, and do get medical permission to start any new exercise regime. None of us are children anymore, and we do have a chronic disease, so rest when you need to and increase your stamina at your own pace.

How to Swim for Exercise:  Make It a Group Thing

Swimming for exercise does not mean just jumping in the pool and doggie paddling around.

You will need to set goals and prove to yourself that you can improve your life using this sport. Your goals may involve reducing the time it takes to swim a certain number of laps, being able to swim for a certain time or distance at one time, swimming a certain distance over a period of time like a month, learning a new stroke, joining a group of swimmers with similar interests, etc.

Since swimming is a solitary sport, being in a group may be important to you. When you do something alone, it’s easy to make excuses for not continuing.

If you are part of a class or group, the wet hair and ride to the pool are outweighed by the phone calls from friends asking where you are and the shared cups of coffee after you have exercised.

Being a member of a group makes it harder to back off of your pace on days you really don’t feel like pushing it, and more importantly, makes it more difficult to stop exercising.

The truth is that each time you stop a program you are more likely not to start up again, and for a person with diabetes, that is a major problem.

Beginning a Swimming Program (and Sticking to It When You Have Diabetes)

Now, where to swim? If you live near a YMCA or YWCA, you might contact them for special classes or swimming times.

Many hospitals and fitness centers have pools and classes. Hotels and motels have pools that often offer memberships for the local residents. Also check out the local schools. If you’re lucky you live by a lake or ocean, then you need beach access to swim where there is a lifeguard.

The following are guidelines for the beginning swimmer:

  1. Before you start any new program, talk to your physician or health care team about your state of health, a good place to start, and what your initial goals should be.
  2. Report back to your doctor about any problems you may be having, and as important, any successes.
  3. Swimming can be tiring at the beginning, especially for those who are not good swimmers. Do not overdo. Make realistic goals based on your abilities.
  4. At the beginning of a session, ease into the water. Avoid diving into very cold water.
  5. When swimming outdoors, avoid sunburn. Too much sun ages you and can cause skin cancer.
  6. Never swim alone.
  7. Never swim after drinking alcohol or with someone else who has been drinking.
  8. Never swim outdoors during a storm.
  9. After eating, allow your food to digest before going into the water. Swimming directly after you eat interferes with the digestive process as your body has to divert blood from the stomach to the muscles.
  10. Never swim without your medical ID in case you need help.  This is especially important since we have diabetes.
  11. Drink fluids before and after your swim to prevent dehydration.
  12. Swimming, like any exercise, can cause hypoglycemia. Know the symptoms. Share them with a swimming buddy so that you stay safe and can enjoy the workout. Carry carbohydrate snacks with you to the pool in case you need some extra calories.
  13. Wear protective footwear if you are swimming in the ocean or lake. A small cut by stepping on a broken shell or rock can cause potentially serious problems with your feet, especially for someone already experiencing diabetic neuropathy.
  14. If you have cardiac disease, make sure to alert those in charge. If you take nitroglycerin tablets, make sure a supply is handy in your pool bag back on dry land.

Get into the pool, lake, ocean, and go after these goals. All you have to lose is weight, depression, and poor glucose control.

First published on: July 31, 2003
Updated on: October 5, 2012
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