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Blood, sweat and insulin

Diabetes didn't stop Jay Handy from competing in a triathlon. Once discouraged from exercise, those with the disease are now told to get moving.

March 29, 2004|Judy Foreman | Special to The Times

For ordinary mortals, just finishing an Ironman Triathlon is almost unimaginable. You swim 2.4 miles, dodging hundreds of other adrenaline-crazed swimmers, then hop on your bike to pedal for 112 miles, then don running shoes and run, jog or limp your way through an entire 26.2-mile marathon. If you actually want to win, you do this in roughly nine hours.

But Jay Handy, 41, a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch in Madison, Wis., not only did all this -- albeit more slowly than the winners -- he did it with Type 1 diabetes, which he has had since he was 13. He's training for another Ironman in September.

Diabetes, which is on the rise and now strikes an estimated 18.2 million Americans, is a nasty disease in which the body doesn't make enough insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps glucose, or sugar, get from the blood into muscles. Diabetes is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and is the leading cause of adult blindness; it can also lead to kidney failure and, when circulation to the extremities fails, to amputation of feet or lower legs.

In the past, people with diabetes were often cautioned not to exert themselves. If their blood sugar levels became too low or too high, they could lapse into a coma. But the thinking today is that, with some caveats, exercise is at least as crucial for people with diabetes as for those without it.

"Everybody with diabetes should be exercising as much as possible," said Dr. Christopher Saudek, a diabetes expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and former president of the American Diabetes Assn. "The quip we use is that people with diabetes should ask their doctor before they stop exercising."

In Type 1 diabetes, the body makes no insulin, which means a person must monitor blood sugar several times a day and take insulin injections. In the more common Type 2, which accounts for 90% of diabetes in the U.S., a person becomes "insulin resistant," meaning the body doesn't respond to insulin; excessive weight and inactivity make a person insulin resistant. Type 2 can sometimes be controlled by diet and exercise alone.

To do an Ironman safely as a diabetic athlete, Handy must check his blood sugar every hour and either eat extra carbohydrates or give himself insulin, depending on whether his sugar is too low or too high.

He's rigged his bike so that he can prick his finger, dab a drop of blood onto a test strip and put the strip in a monitoring device taped to his handlebars -- all with one hand.

It takes trial and error to figure out the specifics -- like exactly how many carbs to eat when blood sugar starts to crash. "But once you crack the code for yourself," he said, "you've got a whole new lease on life."

In people with diabetes, as in all people, exercise makes the body more sensitive to insulin, which means less insulin is needed to escort sugar into cells. This is a good thing, but it means that diabetic athletes may have to cut back on insulin before exercise so blood sugar does not plummet.

"Think of exercise as insulin," said Dr. Om Ganda, an endocrinologist at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. With exercise, you can "get away with less insulin so the pancreas doesn't have to exhaust itself" trying to make enough, he added.

Some cautions for diabetics who want to exercise:

* Because diabetes significantly raises risks of heart disease, anyone with diabetes should have his or her heart checked by a doctor before beginning an exercise program, said Dr. David Harlan, a diabetes specialist at the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people with diabetes.

* Diabetic neuropathy means that people with diabetes may not notice incipient blisters on the feet, which can become infected. Diabetes also causes poor circulation to the extremities, which means a foot infection can become gangrenous, leading to amputation. To prevent this, people with diabetes should check their feet often. Medicare will pay for special shoes for those older than 65.

* People with diabetes should have their eyes checked because of diabetic retinopathy, in which blood vessels in the eye become leaky. Running or other high-impact sports can make this worse.

In some cases, regular exercise can eliminate the need for insulin in Type 2 diabetes.

"Fitness or how much you exercise is way, way more important than how much you weigh," said Dr. Timothy S. Church, medical director of the Cooper Institute in Dallas and co-author of a recent paper on exercise capacity in diabetic men.

Joanne Miegel, 58, from Brighton, Mass., who used to weigh 288 pounds, found that exercising at a gym allowed her to lose 75 pounds and get off insulin. "Without the exercise, I would not have lost the weight and certainly would have still been on insulin," she said.

As for Jay Handy? He finished last fall's Ironman Wisconsin "dead last, but still alive." Excruciating leg cramps forced him off his bike several times and meant he had to walk large chunks of the marathon. By the time he finished -- 17 hours -- the race crew was loading equipment into trucks. But as he later would write, "I focused on the sheer ability to finish. I could never hold myself as an example to diabetic kids if I just quit."

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