Secret # 29: Compete with Yourself

Secret #29 is excerpted from Part Five: Exercise Secrets found in my new book about what has worked well for long-time diabetes survivors: 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes by Sheri Colberg, PhD, and Steven V. Edelman, MD (November 2007). Check my Web site (www.shericolberg.com) for more details or to order this book online.

Until a recent back injury forced him out of the water for a while, Al Lewis, living well with diabetes for over 70 years, was a competitive master’s swimmer, and athletics have played a major role in doing well with diabetes for all those years. Even at the age of 74, he feels it’s important to be very competitive with yourself. “I’m even more competitive with diabetes than I am with other swimmers,” he says. “It’s all about being successful with diabetes.” For him, exercise has been a big part of his success; in fact, he lists “exercise” as the number one 1 secret of his longevity with diabetes. “If you’re successful in controlling your diabetes, it engenders a drive to be in better control,” he admits. Another avid exerciser, Chuck Eichten, also agrees that wanting to succeed or excel with diabetes is good, but that it can potentially be dangerous as well. “I found myself taking it to the nth degree. If a 60 blood sugar is good, why wouldn’t a 58 be better?”

Although Dr. Sheri is purely a recreational athlete at this point in her life, she has to agree with Al’s competitive edge—she also ranks exercise first on her list of her longevity secrets—but admits that you have to be moderate about it like Chuck has discovered. She remarks, “People with diabetes certainly have a higher risk of getting orthopedic injuries—any type of inflammation of joints and tendons—so you can’t go overboard with competing with yourself and others if you want to keep exercising over the long haul.” The better her control has become over the years, though, the greater her desire to keep it that way or better, although she moderates herself in this regard. “I’m always looking for more information about better ways to keep diabetes in check,” she says. “For those of us with goal-oriented personalities and diabetes, we often use athletics to push ourselves harder. My primary goal at this point, though, is just to be able to keep exercising almost daily, which means that I can’t push myself so hard that I get an overuse injury that sidelines me.”

Al, Chuck, and Dr. Sheri are not the only diabetic athletes with the desire to reach loftier goals, even if they aren’t necessarily old-timers. For instance, Gary Hall, Jr., developed type 1 diabetes in 1999 at the age of twenty-four between his first and second Olympic games, and yet he went on to train for and win a gold medal in 50-meter freestyle swimming (and other team events) in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, even after his first diabetes physician told him his swimming career was over when he was diagnosed. Instead of giving up, Gary found himself a diabetologist with a more modern outlook on sports participation, Dr. Anne Peters, and he has yet to let diabetes slow him down. At age twenty-nine, he became the oldest U.S. male in eighty years to win gold when he defended his 50-meter freestyle title at the 2004 Olympic Games. He is currently training for the 2008 Olympics, which will be his fourth one, his third since his diabetes diagnosis. Similarly, Sir Steven Redgrave, a five-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing for Great Britain, was diagnosed with diabetes after his fourth Olympic victory, yet he pushed himself and learned how to manage his diabetes effectively enough to win a fifth gold in the 2004 Sydney Olympic Games.

Other elite diabetic athletes like Kris Freeman, a cross-country skier, competed in the 2006 Winter Olympic Games despite the rigors of long-distance endurance training. When his diabetes was diagnosed in 2000 during the height of his competitive season, his doctor also told him that his skiing career was over, but he defiantly strapped his skis back on the same day and went out to train. In many ways, having diabetes has simply made Kris a more regimented and determined athlete, one who is dedicated to living as healthy a lifestyle as possible. Moreover, many athletes with diabetes (both past and present) have successfully participated in professional and elite sports, including Jay Leeuwenburg and Jonathan Hayes (football), Chris Dudley (basketball), Adam Morrison (basketball), Chris Jarvis (rowing), Jason Johnson (baseball), Missy Foy (ultra-distance runner), Zippora Karz (ballet), Michelle McGann (golf), Bill Talbert (tennis), Jay Handy (Ironman triathlons), and Per Zetterberg (soccer), just to name a few of the very many.

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