Playing Sports with Diabetes

Young athletes usually are intensely concerned with performance. That makes sense, since athletics, at their base, are about competition and human effort. So when that effort is compromised by one’s own body by the autoimmune disease type 1 diabetes, athletes and their parents may wonder if sports are still open to them.

According to Dr. David Jelley, medical director at the Oklahoma Diabetes Center at the University of Oklahoma, children can continue to participate in sports after a diabetes diagnosis. In fact, continuing to do so will provide more benefits than risks.

Dr. Jelley recommends athletics because “they are overall beneficial.” He said that, “activity improves insulin sensitivity and weight control.” In the long run, participating in physical activity reduces the risk of  heart disease, which is a major complication in diabetes patients.

While type 1 diabetes is certainly a game changer for kids, it is not at all a game ender. With proper management of blood sugar levels by a care team, children can begin or continue to play sports.

Because diabetes is an autoimmune disease, we are not born with it, but with a “predisposition to it,” according to Jelley. For that reason, parents may notice performance issues with their kids before seeking diagnosis or treatment.

Type 1 diabetes, simply stated, occurs when the body is not able to make enough insulin to meet your needs. Sugar builds up in the body instead of breaking down as is necessary.

Low blood sugar can be a serious problem for diabetic athletes. With low blood sugar a child may exhibit a decrease in performance, running slower or reacting more slowly. He or she may appear confused, light-headed, shaky, sweaty and weak, or complain of not feeling well, according to Jelley. The most severe side effect of low blood sugar is losing consciousness. Jelley said this happens when the tissues are literally starving for sugar to get where it is needed. He also said it’s rare now because of the types of insulin and regimens being used today, and the greater focus on diet.

Parents who notice changes in performance with their children may wonder if their child has diabetes. According to Jelley, extreme thirst and frequent urination are the most common symptoms. A child who was formerly a dry sleeper, but is now wetting the bed or waking in the night to use the bathroom, might be exhibiting these symptoms. There can also be weight loss. If  parents suspect diabetes, Jelley advises them to go through their primary care doctors to have the child evaluated.

A simple Google search for diabetic athletes returned pages of names, including Jay Cutler, the quarterback for the Chicago Bears and Scott Verplank, the Oklahoma golfer. Proof that diabetes does not end a sports career.

Parents who have children with diabetes can take a proactive approach to playing sports by informing coaches, testing sugar before play, and keeping snacks available. They can also educate themselves on problems to watch for during practice and games. Coaches who know they have diabetic players would do well to keep hard candy or glucose tablets on hand.

Dr. Jelley also suggested some helpful and reputable sites for more information, though he was careful to explain that the best resource is a child’s diabetic care team. For more information, go to,,

Categories: Sports