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Swimming when you have diabetes  

Swimming is a great form of exercise for everyone, especially if you're living with diabetes or are at risk of developing type 2 or gestational diabetes.

Here we’ll take a look at some of the health benefits linked with swimming and share advice about managing your diabetes when you’re swimming too. Plus, you can find out more about our life-changing swimming challenge, Swim22

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Benefits of swimming

If you’re not sure whether swimming is for you, the health benefits linked to it might motivate you to take the plunge into the pool. Going for a swim can: 

  • give you more energy and help you sleep
  • help to improve your overall fitness
  • help to strengthen muscles and improve coordination
  • help you manage your weight
  • be better for painful or stiff joints than other types of exercise
  • help to look after your blood pressure and cholesterol and keep your heart healthy 
  • be relaxing and help reduce stress.

As we’ve mentioned, swimming isn’t just good for your physical health, it can be great for your emotional health too. Going for a gentle swim can lead to the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins, which can help to lift your mood.

“Swimming was a new thing for me, you can exercise your whole body and it’s a fantastic way of de-stressing from all the pressure of work.” 

Ramona, 51, was inspired to start swimming in 2018

We know diabetes can be overwhelming and stressful at times, so you might find that swimming can be a great way to relax. If you’re new to the activity, or haven’t swum in a while, it’s important to start slowly and build up. If you want to set yourself a goal to work towards, why don’t you register for our incredible Swim22 challenge

 

If swimming isn’t right for you, we’ve got lots more information about how being active in all sorts of ways can help you to manage your diabetes, reduce your risk of complications and live a healthy life.

Struggling to move more? Call our helpline for one-to-one support. Our trained specialists will help you build your confidence and find new ways to get moving.

Get in touch by calling 0345 123 2399 from Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm, or emailing helpline@diabetes.org.uk.

Swimming and managing your diabetes

We understand that everyone manages their diabetes differently. And how exercise affects your diabetes depends on the type of activity you’re doing and how intense it is.

Some people worry that swimming could lower blood glucose (sugar) levels too much and increase their risk of hypos. But swimming can affect blood sugar levels in different ways, and for some people it might cause them to be higher than usual. We know this might leave you feeling worried or anxious, so we’ve put together more detailed information about managing your blood sugar levels when exercising to help you feel confident and safe in the pool.

In this section, we’ll explain what you may need to think about if you’re planning on swimming and take insulin, or if you’re at risk of hypos. And we’ll also share some tips to help you decide what to eat before, during and after your swim.

And remember, you can always ask your healthcare team for advice about how to manage your diabetes while swimming to make sure you’re being safe.

Insulin and swimming

If you use insulin to treat your diabetes, you may need to adjust the dose on the days you go swimming. This could be the dose of your long-acting (basal) or short-acting (bolus) insulin, or it could be the rate that you get insulin through your insulin pump. 

This will be different for everyone, so it’s important to get advice from your diabetes healthcare team. You might also find it useful to check your blood sugar levels more regularly around the time you’re going swimming.

Insulin sensitivity is how well your body uses insulin to get your blood sugar levels down. This sensitivity can increase for up to 48 hours after you’ve finished swimming, so it's important to keep checking your blood sugars following your swim. 

Manufacturers will have information on whether diabetes tech like continuous glucose monitors, flash glucose monitors and insulin pumps are water resistant. Each model is different so it is best to check with the company. And if you are using a pump, ask your healthcare team if it’s safe for you to disconnect it while you’re swimming.

Hypos and swimming

Speak to your healthcare team if you take medication that increases the chance of hypos, like insulin or sulphonylureas. You may need to adjust the dose when you do more exercise, but always check with your healthcare team first.

When you do go to the pool, make sure you keep your hypo treatments and glucose monitor close by. And it’s also a good idea to let someone at the pool know you have diabetes, like the lifeguard. You might want to think about wearing diabetes ID too.  

Eating and swimming

Eating a healthy, balanced diet will ensure your body has everything it needs if you’re going to be swimming regularly. 

When we exercise, our muscles need carbohydrates for fuel. If you’re planning to swim a longer distance (say, for over an hour) you may need to eat some carbs before, during and after your swim. 

And you may be surprised to learn that you can sweat during swimming, so you can still get dehydrated. Keep yourself well hydrated before, after and during your swim by having a bottle of water by the side of the pool.

Before you swim

Leave at least 3 to 4 hours after eating your last meal and starting swimming. You could have a snack 1 to 2 hours before swimming if needed, such as a cereal bar, a piece of fruit or yogurt. 

Some people with diabetes may need to eat something with carbs half an hour before swimming, to help manage blood sugar levels. But whether you actually need a snack or not can depend on how long you plan to swim for, how intense your session will be and what’s happening with your blood sugar levels. 

If you’re going to be swimming for under an hour you shouldn’t need to eat anything. But if you’re at risk of hypos, a snack could help to avoid your blood sugar from dropping too low while you are swimming. 

During your swim

For a longer, more intense session (over an hour), glucose sports drinks or gels can give you carbs during your swim. But these will probably affect your blood sugar levels.

It will be tricky to eat proper food while in the pool, so you might find it easier to get out and have a snack instead.

After swimming

Try to eat some carbs and protein as soon as possible after completing your swim. If you don’t fully replace what your body has used in your session, your next swim will suffer. 

A balanced meal of wholegrain carbs, vegetables or salad, fish or chicken, beans or pulses will give your body everything it needs after doing exercise. We've got lots of recipes to help you get inspired. 

Looking after your feet and eyes when swimming

If you’re living with diabetes, you’re more at risk of developing complications with your feet and eyes. This means that it’s important to pay close attention to these areas of your body when you start swimming.

To avoid verrucas and injuries to your feet, wear flip flops in the shower and around the pool. And each time you swim, make sure to watch out for the signs of serious foot problems, such as changes in the colour or feeling of your feet. 

It’s also important to keep checking for blisters, cuts or ulcers on each foot. If you notice something isn’t healing properly, make sure you contact your healthcare team for more advice.

You can go swimming if you have problems with your eyes, but you may need to check with your healthcare team about whether it is safe for you to dive into the pool. 

Swimming challenges

Whether you’re looking for a way to get started with swimming or want to push yourself to reach new goals in the pool - our Swim22 challenge could be for you. With three distances to choose from, set your target and take on the challenge at your own pace, in your own local pool.

We’ll be with you every stroke, length and mile of the way as you swim towards a healthier you and a better future for everybody affected by diabetes.

Amanda didn’t realise what she was capable of until she took on Swim22:

"When I started training, I struggled to swim 12 lengths in an hour. There were times where I felt like I was swimming through treacle. But within three months, I was doing 50 lengths in an hour."

Open water swimming when you have diabetes

If you’re already a strong swimmer and want to explore further afield, open water swimming can be a great alternative to your local pool. 

Swim England advise that if you want to try this type of swimming, you can either find a supervised local venue to visit or join a club. Supervised venues are safer than wild swimming because they’re more likely to have lifeguards and other safety measures. Never swim anywhere if there are signs telling you not to, or advising that it’s dangerous. You should also avoid stagnant water, weirs and locks.

Open water swimming can be a chilly experience, but if you’re worried about the temperature - wetsuits can help protect against the cold. They can also protect any diabetes kit you wear and help you in the water. It’s also a good idea to get your body used to being in the cold water slowly. That means only getting in for a very short time to begin with.

It’s important to make sure you check your feet before and after you get in the water, or wear aqua shoes to protect your feet. And if you take insulin or medication that puts you at risk of hypos, you need to be especially careful. If your body has to work hard to stay warm, you’ll use a lot more glucose than you would swimming in warmer water. It can also be harder to spot the signs of a hypo because the endorphins your body releases can mask the usual warning signs.

Competitive swimming and diabetes

Having type 1, type 2 or another type of diabetes shouldn’t stop you from being able to compete in swimming competitively. It just means you may have more to consider when getting in and out of the pool, such as checking your blood sugar levels more often.

Together with Swim England, we’ve created a fact sheet (PDF, 1.91MB) for coaches and volunteers about diabetes and competitive swimming. You can share this with your coach, team-mates or anyone that wants to support swimmers with diabetes. As well as helping them to understand more about your condition, the factsheet also contains tips and advice so they can be there for you as you swim towards your goals. 

Where to get more support

It can be hard to know where to start if you’re new to swimming, but we’re here to help. We’ve got lots of advice about where to get more support with exercise and how to set goals to aim for and keep you motivated. 

If you’re looking for help with planning your swims and sticking to a schedule, why not try using the activity planner in our free guide to moving more (PDF, 2.9MB)? As well as helping you to keep on track with your activity, there’s space for you to reflect on how it’s made you feel and lots of information and advice to support you on your swim journey. 

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