Swimming is a great form of exercise for everyone, especially if you are living with any type of 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 swimming too.
Although pools are closed right now, we've created three guides about fitness and stamina (PDF, 164KB), flexibility (PDF, 2.8MB) and strength (PDF, 2.1MB) to help you keep fit on land and improve your swimming. There are many different exercises for you to try, as well as example session and training plans.
Top 9 health benefits of swimming
There are so many benefits to swimming, including:
- gives you more energy
- helps improve your overall fitness
- could help you sleep
- helps to strengthen muscles and improve coordination
- help you manage your weight
- better for painful or stiff joints than other types of exercise
- helps look after blood pressure and cholesterol – really important when you have diabetes
- helps to keep your heart healthy, even more important because having diabetes means you’re more at risk of heart problems
- it’s relaxing and a stress-reliever.
As we’ve mentioned, swimming isn’t just good for your physical health, but lots of people find swimming great for their emotional health too. We know diabetes can be overwhelming and stressful at times, and swimming can be a great way to relax. Going for a gentle swim will release feel-good hormones called endorphins, which will help lift your mood.
But 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, help to reduce your risk of complications, and live a healthy life.
“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. I felt a huge sense of achievement, every time I did a big distance it felt amazing. Especially when I completed the challenge!”
- Ramona, 51, has type 1 diabetes
Swimming is a fun and relaxing way to keep fit. You could even get a group of friends together to swim, and motivate each other to keep going. But if you’re new to swimming or haven’t swum in a while, it’s important to start slowly and build up gradually.
If you want to set yourself a goal to work towards, why don’t you register for Swim 22?
We understand that everyone manages their diabetes differently. And how exercise affects your diabetes depends on the type of exercise you’re doing and how intense it is.
Some people worry that swimming could lower blood sugar levels too much and increase the 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.
Here we’ll explain what to think about if you’re planning on swimming and take insulin, if you’re at risk of hypos, and how to look after your feet and eyes. But remember you can always ask your healthcare team about how to manage your diabetes before, during and after exercise 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 days when you go swimming. This could be the dose of your long-acting (basal) or short-acting (bolus) insulin. Or 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. Checking your blood sugar levels regularly around swimming will help you.
Insulin sensitivity is how well your body uses insulin to get your blood sugar levels down. And this sensitivity can increase for several hours (up to 48 hours) after you’ve finished swimming, so again keep checking your blood sugars as they may be lower than you expect.
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 medications that increase the chance of hypos, like insulin and sulphonylureas . You may need to adjust the dose when you do more exercise but always check with your healthcare team first before making changes to your medication.
Keep hypo treatments and your glucose monitor close by. And it’s also a good idea to let someone at the pool know you have diabetes, like the lifeguard. Think about wearing diabetes ID too.
Looking after your feet and eyes when swimming
Signs of a serious foot problem include changes in colour, feeling, and watch out for blisters, cuts or ulcers. Wear flip flops in the shower and around the pool to avoid verrucas or injuries to your feet. If you notice that anything isn’t healing, contact your healthcare team for advice.
If you have eye problems, get advice about whether you are safe to dive. But this doesn’t mean you can’t go swimming.
Eating and swimming
Eating a balanced, healthy 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.
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.
Get support with exercise
It can be hard to know where to start if you’re a swimming beginner. We’ve got lots of advice about where to get more support with exercise, how your healthcare team can help and how to set goals to aim for and keep you motivated.
We can help you get started, with a swimming challenge that could be perfect for you – Swim22. Find out all about Swim22, what it is and how to sign up.
“I never stopped swimming. It was something I got comfort from. And when I was in the water, I wasn’t restricted by my weight or the pain in my joints. I've completed three Swim22 challenges and raised over £5,000."
- Len, 71, has type 2 diabetes