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The Diabetic Athlete

Don't let diabetes force you to the sidelines. Learn how to maximize your workouts while coping with a life-altering disease.

In 1998, two-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Gary Hall Jr. was preparing for the Goodwill Games when his hands suddenly began to shake in the middle of practice. He shrugged it off; after all, he was training up to eight hours a day, burning calories out of the pool as well as through running, weightlifting and boxing. He downed some PowerBars and Gatorade to boost his blood sugar and went back to work.

But then he began sucking liquids like a diesel truck, sometimes drinking four gallons of orange juice in one sitting. Soon he couldn’t make out the letters on a Pepsi can held at arm’s length. He had all the telltale signs of diabetes: extreme thirst, blurry vision and fatigue. When he was diagnosed, he was told that his swimming career was over.

“The doctors said exercise was good in moderation, but not at the level I was at,” says Hall. Yet he continued to dive into his sport, revamping his diet and closely monitoring his condition for warning signs. And when he climbed out of the pool in Sydney last year, four more Olympic medals hung around his neck, two of them gold.

Hall may be an exceptional case, but he shows that men can pursue active lifestyles, and even exceed their expectations, while managing diabetes.

What’s Your Type?

About 16 million Americans have diabetes, and about 2,200 new cases are diagnosed each day. There are two primary kinds of diabetes: Type 2, in which the body lacks sufficient insulin or the ability to use it properly, accounts for more than 85 percent of cases and is generally diagnosed in obese adults over 40. Type 1, in which the pancreas becomes unable to manufacture insulin, usually strikes those under 30 and is the more common condition among active males.

Insulin is a protein hormone that enables the body to use sugar and other carbohydrates; it also helps tissues to store nutrients. Because those with type 1 diabetes, such as Hall, cannot produce insulin, they require daily insulin injections, often two or more a day. (Pills are not effective because stomach acids destroy insulin before it can do its work.)

Unfortunately, there are times when the body doesn’t use insulin like it should. Insulin resistance, which fluctuates even within a single day, may be triggered by any type of physical stress, such as the flu or taking cortisone to treat inflammation. There are two ways to fight it: exercise and diet. Moderate to intense aerobic exercise for 20 minutes to an hour can break the resistance within 24 hours, while strength training works within 48 hours.

Studies published in Public Health Nutrition and other journals have shown that diets high in fat and refined sugar tend to boost insulin resistance, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats do not; also, omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish may offset resistance to a degree. “If you change your diet to include higher fiber, complex carbs, whole fruits, and vegetables, then the symptoms will often go away within a few days,” says Sheri Colberg-Ochs, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and author of The Diabetic Athlete.

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