Staying Active with Diabetes: Riding the Wave

Posted by alexis on Tue, 01/29/2013 - 18:13 in

Podder Talk will be featuring stories that showcase the various ways people with diabetes choose to stay active. In this first installment of “Staying Active with Diabetes,” read about Alexis Pollak and how she manages diabetes while hanging ten. 

Alexis is the author of I Run on Insulin and is passionate about diabetes advocacy and education. She's had type 1 diabetes for 20 years and believes an active lifestyle is one key to successful diabetes management.

My standard low blood sugar symptoms are sweating, shaking and feeling lightheaded. But when there’s a five-foot wave crashing over your head, a wetsuit barring you from feeling true temperatures and the feeling of weightlessness from being in the water, it’s really easy to miss low symptoms. This is why surfing with diabetes has been one of my toughest but most rewarding athletic endeavors.

My Diabetes Management and Surfing

alexis-pollak-surfingI grew up in sunny San Diego and my two sisters and I attended surf camp every summer when we were kids. At the time, my parents did so much of my diabetes management that I thought nothing of getting in the water for hours at a time without a blood glucose check. Looking back, the high-carb snacks the other kids at camp shared with me probably prevented some nasty lows out there in the ocean.

As an adult, I’m much more responsible with my diabetes care. I stopped surfing for a few years in and after college, because I got busy with other activities. But when I moved into an apartment one block from the beach a few years ago, I got inspired to get on my board again.

Being on top of my diabetes is generally a good thing, but I realized that I had developed an anxiety about being in the water for long periods of time. I’m an avid CGM (continuous glucose monitor) user, but the receiver isn’t waterproof. Being in the ocean confused my ability to read my symptoms of highs and lows, and I became overly paranoid of going out for longer than a half hour.

Overcoming Obstacles with Diabetes

But just like every other athletic challenge I’ve had in my life, I found ways to overcome it. My general plan for surfing goes like this: I test right before leaving the house, and if I’m under 100 mg/dL, I eat half a banana and/or turn my basal rates down. Then I tuck a packet of sugary gel that runners use for carbs in my bathing suit top. Once I zip up my wetsuit, the packet stays snugly in the same spot. I also try and surf first thing in the morning before I’ve bolused for breakfast so I don’t have to worry about any insulin on board while I’m out there.

Once I’m in the ocean, I take a few moments to sit and wait for the first wave to gauge how I’m feeling physically so I have a baseline to compare to. If I start feeling overly tired, I know it’s time to get back on land. At the first sign of any low, I down my packet of gel. I’d rather err on the side of too high than too low when I’m in the ocean. Slowly but surely, as I built a plan around surfing with diabetes, I began to overcome my fears. Now I go out about once a week and can truly enjoy every minute of it, instead of feeling anxious.

Positive Effects of Surfing on Diabetes

Surfing has helped my overall physical health, because it’s gentler on my body than my usual running and kickboxing routine. Sometimes doing too many high-impact sports can cause injuries and joint problems, but surfing is a fun way to get exercise without pounding the pavement. Plus, you get to be outdoors and enjoy the gift of being in the water and sunshine. Going out once a week mixes up my workout routine and also has a “zen” factor that the gym could never duplicate. All exercise helps us control our blood sugars and contributes to our overall health, so I’m glad I found something that’s a lot of fun, too.

Just like everything with diabetes, I found a way to do it, even though it seemed intimidating at first.