With their healthy regimes, athletes often feel immune to the conditions faced by those making less optimal lifestyle choices. With low resting heart rates, regimented workout schedules and clean eating habits, endurance athletes are the last people you’d expect to be candidates for something like Type 2 diabetes.
But it happens. I know because I am living proof. I am a triathlete and marathoner and was diagnosed with prediabetes a few years ago. My fasting blood sugar level is 109 mg/dL, falling in the prediabetes zone (100–125 mg/dL is considered prediabetes; anything higher indicates Type 2 diabetes).
I am not alone; prediabetes is actually quite common. According to a July 2017 press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 84.1 million Americans have prediabetes. This means more than 1/3 of U.S. adults have prediabetes, but only 11.6% are aware of it. Why? Eki Abrams, MD, of PlushCare, a telehealth provider, says prediabetes typically does not present itself with symptoms, which is the scariest thing about it.
WHAT IS PREDIABETES?
“Prediabetes is defined as blood sugars that are elevated, but below levels that would indicate diabetes,” says Robert Ziltzer, MD, of the Scottsdale Weight Loss Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Elevated blood sugars damage arterial blood vessels, leading to increased risk of heart attack and stroke.” This means prediabetes is not simply a warning sign; people with it already increase their risk of grave health problems. And worse, if they do not make lifestyle changes, many people develop Type 2 diabetes within five years.
The condition is often associated with diet and genetic predisposition, according to Karolyn Boyd, a kinesiologist and author of “Food Freedom How to Begin Your Path of Self-Mastery and Reverse Diabetes,” and endurance athletes can develop it. Boyd says sports drinks, gels and supplements that support longer exercise sessions are unnatural and processed.
In addition, the way athletes recuperate from workouts can affect their body. “We have to make sure there is sufficient recovery,” Boyd says. “When an athlete does not recover sufficiently, it triggers the inflammatory process and simply makes things worse for the development of the metabolic condition.” This can stem from lack of body awareness. Some athletes may not know how to listen to the signals their bodies’ give them. “It takes years to learn how to become body conscious and actually listen and give your body what it needs,” she says.
Dr. Abrams lists the following as additional risk factors for prediabetes:
- Age: Risk increases with age, especially if you are older than 45
- Ethnicity: African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islander face an increased risk
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
- A family history of diabetes
- Gestational diabetes (developing diabetes during pregnancy)
- Overweight or obese
HOW CAN ATHLETES REDUCE THEIR RISK?
The good news: Athletes can take steps to limit their potential for a diagnosis. Jennifer Kanikula, RD, from La Crosse, Wisconsin, provides her expert tips:
- Maintain a healthy weight and body composition. Consider an alternative method to measuring body composition instead of the typical BMI, which can be misleading, especially in athletes with high muscle mass. One substitute method is called the DEXA scan. This is a special type of X-ray measures bone mineral density.
- Consume a high-quality diet rich in variety. This ensures you are getting all the macro and micronutrients your body requires to function best.
- Check in with your health care providers to ensure you have no other underlying medical concerns. Diabetes is rarely seen as an isolated issue.