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Diabetes and Sports Factsheet (for Schools)

What Teachers and Coaches Should Know

Diabetes affects how the body uses glucose, the main type of sugar in the blood. Glucose — an important source of energy for the body's cells — comes from the foods we eat. Glucose is carried to the cells through the bloodstream. Several hormones, including insulin, control glucose levels in the blood. When a person has diabetes, the body either can't make or can't respond to insulin properly.

Exercise makes insulin work better in the body, which helps people with diabetes keep their blood sugar levels in a healthier range. But when kids with diabetes exercise, they can experience low blood sugar, called hypoglycemia, or high blood sugar, called hyperglycemia.

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) can happen during or after exercise, when the body has used up much of its stored sugar, especially if insulin levels in the body are still high after an insulin injection. Signs of hypoglycemia include extreme hunger, tremors, rapid heart rate, cold sweat, pale-gray skin color, headache, moodiness or irritability, drowsiness or dizziness, blurred or double vision, confusion, seizures, or loss of consciousness.

Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) can happen during sports and exercise because the muscles need more energy and the body responds by releasing extra glucose into the bloodstream. If the body doesn't have enough insulin to use the glucose, then the sugar will stay in the blood, which can cause increased urination and dehydration. Other signs of hyperglycemia include excessive thirst, fatigue, weakness, and blurry vision.

Students with diabetes who play sports may:

  • need to monitor blood sugar levels several times a day, as well as before and after playing sports or practicing
  • take insulin injections or wear an insulin pump
  • experience signs of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia
  • need to use the bathroom frequently
  • need plenty of water and extra snacks before, during, and after exercise
  • need to sit out of practice or games if their blood sugar is too low or too high

What Teachers and Coaches Can Do

Students with diabetes can play sports and exercise at the same level as anyone else. And just like most kids and teens, students with diabetes are healthier if they get plenty of exercise, which can help them manage the disease.

You may need to remind students with diabetes to check their blood sugar levels before, during, and after exercise, practice, and games. Also, make sure that:

  • you and your student know the symptoms of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia
  • you keep extra snacks, juices, and emergency supplies in the classroom and on the playing field in case your student starts to have symptoms of hypoglycemia
  • your student with diabetes has a diabetes management plan
  • you know how to respond, in accordance with the plan, in case of an emergency

Students with diabetes may miss class time, practices, or games due to doctor visits or hospital stays. Teachers and coaches should give them special consideration regarding missed instruction, assignments, testing, and sports.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date Reviewed: Jun 1, 2018

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