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Exercise for Children With Type 2 Diabetes

By Craig Stoltz

Updated July 29, 2008

(LifeWire) - Tens of thousands of children and adolescents in the U.S. have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (formerly known as "adult onset" diabetes), and according to a recent study, more than 2.7 million kids are considered to be at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Until the last 10 years or so, type 2 diabetes was rarely seen in children. But kids who have developed lifestyles of little exercise and poor diet who have become overweight as a result are also developing diabetes earlier in life, similar to the middle-aged population who more commonly develop type 2 diabetes.

That's the bad news. The good news is that type 2 diabetes can be successfully controlled, often simply through a better diet and regular exercise. Making simple but important lifestyle changes now can lead to long-term successful blood sugar management, which spares kids from a lifetime of serious complications such as heart disease, organ damage, blindness and amputations. Let's look at the exercise part of the equation.

Why Is Exercise Beneficial for Children With Type 2 Diabetes?

During physical activity, glucose moves more efficiently from the bloodstream into the muscles, reducing blood sugar levels. This effect lasts from 24 to 48 hours. Staying active nearly every day can make a big contribution to efforts by kids to control their blood sugar levels.

Since excess body fat can make insulin less effective in moving sugar out of the blood, being overweight can make diabetes worse. Exercise can help control weight, although dietary changes are necessary, too.

Exercise also helps kids become more coordinated, self-confident and physically capable, which in turn can help them develop a lifelong love of activities and sports. A commitment to being active can help them maintain healthy blood sugar levels throughout the coming years.

How Much Exercise Is Recommended for Children With Type 2 Diabetes?

According to the federal government's National Diabetes Education Program, kids with type 2 diabetes should get a total of 60 minutes of daily activity. This guideline does not mean 60 minutes all at once; this can be spread across a 20-minute active recess and a 40-minute gym class, or recess plus an after-school game of basketball totaling 60 minutes, or an hour-long soccer practice.

How Can You Help a Diabetic Child Become More Active?

  • By limiting "screen time" spent watching TV, playing video games or sitting at the computer. Limiting this factor has been shown to make kids more physically active.
  • By doing physical activities as a group, such as riding bikes, taking hikes, playing catch, playing basketball or skating. These exercise options are virtually endless. Not only does group activity contribute to a child's daily "dose" of exercise, but adults will be modeling healthy behaviors as well.
  • By helping find other options if a child is not interested in team sports. For example, participation in dance classes, martial arts, gymnastics, running, weight training, aerobic exercise videos, kayaking, golfing, tennis, Frisbee or other games.
  • By encouraging the child to be more active in everyday life. For example, park at the farthest spot from the store for a longer walk, take the dog for a walk, help with chores, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or walk or ride bikes on short errands.
  • By playing video games that help keep kids active. A very popular game called Dance Dance Revolution provides cues on the TV screen to prompt players to stomp to the dance moves onto a large floor mat.
  • By helping a child who has been inactive for a long time or who is already overweight, by introducing exercise a little at a time to avoid feelings of discouragement or embarrassment, or feelings that the exercise is "too hard" or "no fun."

What Precautions Should Children With Diabetes Take Before Exercising?

It is very important to check with the child's doctor before making significant changes in activity levels. Depending on the child's disease status and other factors, blood sugar levels may need to checked before and/or after exercise.The child will need to learn to recognize the signs of low blood sugar while being active, and should always bring appropriate snacks and water to stay well hydrated.

The child should wear a diabetes bracelet or other medical identification. Physical education teachers, coaches, and parents who supervise activities should be made aware of the child's condition, but don't let the need for supervision prevent a child with diabetes from becoming more active and healthier every day.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Craig Stoltz has served as editor of The Washington Post's health section and editorial director of Revolution Health. He is currently a consultant to several health-related Web ventures. He lives in Bethesda, Md.

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