It’s a simple sentence formed with simple words. But these words were in a sense the big bang, the cannonball that started a revolution around diabetes and exercise. When Paula Harper was first diagnosed with diabetes in 1972, medical advice at the time was often not to exercise. For her long distance running, she got only negative or poor medical support for her training and distance running pursuits.
When she ran her first marathon in 1977, little did she know what was in store for her just a few years down the road. In this Phoenix marathon Paula wore a T-shirt that her husband Lew Harper had scribbled with a magic marker on the back the words I RUN ON INSULIN. These words soon became the slogan, the international call to arms for diabetes and exercise. The words were so simple, almost musical, but had so many levels of meaning. Yes, Paula takes insulin and she runs. Yes insulin is the fuel that makes the machine work. And yes, a person can have diabetes and run marathons. The symbolism of I RUN ON INSULIN remains vital and potent to this day.
On that day in Phoenix, Paula learned that she was not the only road warrior putting into practice something she instinctively believed in –– the powerful tool of sports in helping to keep blood sugars managed. People came up to her with a sigh of relief that they were no longer alone. Some joked saying they thought the shirt read “I run on insults”. She found quite a few people who were also doing “trial and error” therapy. Through those common bonds of diabetes and exercise they became comrades and friends. They exchanged ideas on best ways to manage blood sugars during endurance sports. Soon Paula, with help and encouragement from husband Lew, organized the people she met in races into a not-for-profit organization and called it the International Diabetic Athletes Association (IDAA). The year was 1985.
Paula sought out people like Edward Horton, MD and Clifton Bogardus, MD to serve on the board of directors as they were well versed in the field of diabetes and exercise. In Eric Ravussen, PhD, a scientist from the National Institute of Health (NIH) Service soon became a board member and was instrumental in developing an international board of directors with subsequent chapters in Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the Dominican Republic.
Exercise is Medicine
Today the revolution and power of diabetes and sports is in full blown practice among so many people with diabetes. Yes, exercise really is medicine. And if it weren’t for our pioneer woman, Paula Harper, perhaps there would not be a Team Type l, professional and Olympic athletes, dedicated groups such as Insulindependence, Team Wild, Connected in Motion and MADIDEA who encourage and mentor adults and children with diabetes. From the beginning of IDAA Paula’s dream was to encourage people with diabetes to be active and to reach far and live out their dreams. They are runners, cyclists, hikers, swimmers, tri-athletes, mountaineers, sailors, walkers, ironmen, ultimate Frisbee players, dancers, paddlers, skaters, basketball, football and baseball players, bodybuilders and fencers. These athletes wear their diabetes as proud role models to show and inspire others that __ hey, we did it, and you can do it too.
IDAA changed its name to DESA, Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association in 1999 as a way to broaden its scope and include a wider message to all levels of diabetes and activity.
In 2013 there are probably enough diabetic athletes to span a 26.2 mile marathon course. Several new groups and organizations have sprouted up all over the country where anyone interested can find training and support for a number of athletic events. In 2012 DESA merged with Insulindependence which currently encompasses many types of sports/exercise groups such as Triabetes, Glucomotive, and Dawn Phenomenon committed to inspiring people with diabetes to fulfill their dreams whether it be of running marathons or climbing mountains. Other sectors of support for diabetes and exercise are: Diabetes Training Camp, Team Wild, Team Types 1&2, Diabetes Destiny, Chris Dudley’s Basketball Camp, Dash Camp, Padre Camp, Riding on Insulin, MAD?IDEA, and Hypoactive.
In the August issue of Diabetes Forecast magazine Sheri Colberg, PhD, T1 and professor of exercise science offered her practical advice about starting an activity program in an article titled Instant Results. She mentions safety first and cautions to check bg’s as well as starting slowly, wearing a pedometer, scheduling your workouts to fit your day and if you miss your regular routine substitute with a brisk walk or other activity. These are all excellent tips.
But wait a minute you say you are not a runner or distance cyclist or competitive athlete? I’ll let you in on a little secret I learned quite a few years ago which I took to heart. It was something I heard at T1 marathoner Bill King’s presentation during an IDAA/DESA conference. He said “There is an athlete in all of us. Our bodies were built to move. It’s up to you to discover that athlete. It could be swimming, brisk walking, salsas dancing, kayaking on a lake or kick boxing. The athlete is in there. It up to you to make friends with that athlete and have a great time moving.”
I hope this column motivates you to be active as part of your everyday diabetes self care. MoTo Move …Motivate To Move. My next column will include more about Paula’s adventures in starting the International Diabetes Athlete’s Association (IDAA) and later the Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association (DESA). Subsequent columns will feature others with diabetes who exercise and play sports and help all of us be motivated to move.