What is type 1 diabetes?

According to the JDRF, an organization devoted to finding a cure for and improving the lives of people with the disease:

  • Type 1 diabetes (T1D) happens when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas
  • Scientists believe both genetic factors and environmental triggers are involved – not diet or lifestyle (unlike type 2 diabetes). It can’t be prevented or cured – yet.
  • People with T1D must depend on injected or pumped insulin for life, but insulin isn’t a cure, and it can’t always prevent serious complications such as kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage and heart attack.
  • T1D can strike at any age.
  • People with T1D must carefully balance their insulin doses with eating and activity, both day and night. They must test their blood sugar by pricking their fingers for blood many times each day.

If your son or daughter has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D), your first instinct is to be protective. Along with making sure the right dosage of insulin is administered at the right time, you must keep a close eye on your child’s diet and exercise, which also affect blood sugar levels. Just as eating makes blood sugar rise, intense activity makes it plummet.

That’s why you might be tempted to rule out sports as well as sugary treats, to protect your child from potentially life-threatening blood sugar swings. But should you?

That’s why you might be tempted to rule out sports as well as sugary treats, to protect your child from potentially life-threatening blood sugar swings. But should you?

Can your child with type 1 diabetes play sports?

There are definitely challenges involved with sports. You must make sure coaches know your child will have to stop from time to time to eat. You may have to overcome coaches’ resistance to letting your child play in the first place. But kids with diabetes can definitely play sports. And the benefits of sports are the same for kids with type 1 diabetes as any kids: Fresh air, exercise, perseverance, teamwork — and just plain fun.

Canadian Olympian Chris Jarvis knows what it’s like to be an athlete with diabetes. He was diagnosed with type 1 when he was in Grade 9. After learning how to cope with his condition and overcoming resistance to his participation on the varsity rowing team, Jarvis went on to make the national team, win a silver medal at the world championships and race for eight years on the Canadian Olympic rowing team. He started I challenge diabetes (ICD), an organization that promotes sports for people with diabetes, in 2007.

5 tips for playing competitive sports with type 1 diabetes

Jarvis offers some tips for reducing the challenges of playing sports for kids — and adults — with type 1 diabetes. He says:

  1. Time. Use the moments you have available to test your blood and think about what you have to do to stabilize your blood sugar level. In the car or while waiting for a friend, watching the Zamboni or microwaving a snack — seize the moment to put yourself a step ahead.
  2. Variables. It can seem overwhelming to try to track all the variables that affect your condition — the interplay among insulin, diet, stress, exercise and hormones. Instead, keep it simple and work on one variable at a time. It’s just like learning to play a sport: You work on one skill at a time, and you improve with practice.
  3. Patterns. How your blood sugar responds to exercise will often follow a trend or pattern, such as climbing before a game, then dropping during play, then climbing again. Being aware of these patterns will help you make good decisions and help your teammates support you.
  4. The mental game. In sports, we compare our efforts to our opponents and our teammates, and it can seem unfair when you have a challenge few others have to live with. But instead of thinking about the obstacles others don’t have, try looking at what they do complain about — things like blisters, tough coaches, bad weather— and see if you can avoid letting those things slow you down.
  5. Community. Reach out to others in your situation. “Just as my rowing and fitness got stronger because of the support of my teammates, my entire life got better when I connected with other people who understood T1D,” says Jarvis.

Look for events geared to children living with diabetes

One such event is DSkate, the one-week hockey camp Sun Life Financial is supporting in partnership with the MLSE Foundation this summer. Sun Life’s support will give children with type 1 diabetes, who may not otherwise have the financial means to play hockey, the chance to develop life skills such as teamwork, self-confidence and respect, while learning how to play the game and manage their disease on and off the ice. Proper management of diabetes is key in order to help potentially prevent related complications to the disease like renal failure, vision loss and nerve damage.

“We’re thrilled to team up with the MLSE Foundation in the fight against diabetes,” said Paul Joliat, Assistant Vice-President, Philanthropy & Sponsorships, Sun Life Financial. “At Sun Life, we see first-hand the physical and financial impact diabetes can have on families. It’s programs like these that support our continued efforts to empower Canadians to join us in preventing this disease and its related complications.”

Learn what else Sun Life is doing to team up against diabetes.

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