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People with type 1 diabetes held back from sport due to stigma and fear of hypos

Our survey has shown that half of people with type 1 diabetes feel that the condition holds them back from physical activity and exercise.
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Kate Lawton 27 September 2023

Close up of someone kneeling down and tying the shoelace on their trainer whilst on a running track

Our survey has shown that half of people with type 1 diabetes feel that the condition holds them back from physical activity and exercise.

Stigma and lack of support

Almost half of those surveyed had experienced stigmatising comments about type 1 and exercise. 46% of respondents had been told – incorrectly – that they were inactive or lazy because of their type 1. 48% had been told that people with type 1 aren’t able to be physically active, which is also incorrect.

Only 6% of respondents had regularly found sports coaches, PE teachers and gym instructors to be educated about type 1 diabetes and physical activity.

Hypos and complexity of type 1

Fear of hypos (low blood glucose levels which can cause unconsciousness or even be fatal) was reported by 46% of respondents as the main reason for not engaging in physical activity. This was despite an overall satisfaction (71%) with how they manage their blood glucose levels.

Respondents also reported that fluctuations in their glucose levels often made them feel too unwell to exercise or that having to stop exercise to managing glucose levels was too frustrating and put them off.

People with type 1 want to exercise – just like anybody else

Although exercise can help stabilise blood glucose levels, the majority of respondents wanted to do exercise for reasons unrelated to their type 1 diabetes. Over two-thirds of people surveyed wanted to do physical activity for the benefit of their general and mental health, to have fun and feel good.

Exercise and physical activity can have varying effects on blood glucose levels and it affects everyone with type 1 differently. In general, gentle exercise like walking can cause blood glucose to drop, whereas high energy or endurance exercise can cause blood glucose to rise, due to spikes in adrenaline.

Physical activity isn’t just sport

Physical activity isn’t limited to just sports and exercise sessions. 47% people of people surveyed cited housework as one of their weekly physical activities, 29% shopping, and 6% DIY and 5% gardening.

The report calls for more information and support for people with type 1 who want to take part in physical activity, and for more education for people running sports and exercise activities.

What do these findings mean for people with type 1?

Chris Bright, JDRF’s Community Partnerships and Events Lead, who led the project, said:

“What the survey shows us is that people with type 1 diabetes want to do exercise for the same reasons anyone else does – though we know it can also be beneficial for blood glucose management. However, there are clearly barriers in place that prevent people with type 1 from doing the exercise they want to do; from stigma and misconceptions about type 1 to concerns about the impact that exercise will have on blood glucose levels. What’s needed is more support for people with type 1 and education for people running sports and exercise activities.”

How we’re working for change

JDRF UK has already begun work to improve knowledge and education around type 1 and exercise, working in partnership with The Football Association of Wales, The Diabetes Football Community and Diabetes UK to produce guidance for football coaches on type 1 diabetes. As well as providing information and support online and through their Community Engagement Team, JDRF run regular events on managing type 1 and exercise, both in-person and virtually. JDRF’s Community Engagement team also work with partners in the healthcare profession, such as EXTOD.

Chris said:

“Empowering people with information is key, as is working in partnerships with sporting organisations and groups. We have the evidence, what we are doing now is working to make change happen on the ground.”

We would like to thank the Trustees of the Peter Harrison Foundation for their generous support which made this vital work possible.

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