How Sports Saved Me After My Diabetes Diagnosis
By Shawn Laib
Sports are a great way for people to engage in healthy habits, and they can contribute to positive mental health outcomes as well. Shawn Laib describes the ways basketball has helped him manage his diabetes and mental health. He also speaks to others with diabetes to find out how they use sports and physical activity to improve their health.
It was on the playground at my elementary school in the second grade where I first started playing basketball. Playing a sport was an indescribable joy, allowing me to open up to other kids who I typically had trouble talking to in non-sporting situations.
Even today, more than a decade later, when I’m on the basketball court, I don’t think about anything else. I enjoy the camaraderie with other players, the knowledge it takes to perform well on the court, and the great exercise I get as a byproduct.
When I tore my ACL in December 2018, I was crushed. Between my surgery and the recovery process through physical therapy, I had to wait almost a year and half before I could play again. When the time finally came, it was March 2020. The pandemic had hit, ending my hopes of playing with others at the gym any time soon.
Then, two months later, in May 2020, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I felt alone and lost, unsure if I did anything wrong or if I could continue to live a “normal” lifestyle with a chronic condition. Everything felt like it was toppling down around me. I had just conquered one obstacle, only for another to come barreling my way.
It also led me to wonder whether the two occurrences were linked in any way. Why did I get diagnosed with diabetes at such a young age? Was it because of my lack of movement during my time away from basketball? Or was that coincidental? I’ll never know the answer. You can only control the present and future, though, and that is what I have tried to focus on.
Fortunately, my healthcare provider prescribed me medication that helped bring my blood sugar down, and I combined that with improvements to my diet. I wasn’t able to start exercising regularly again until June 2021, but it came just in time. My A1C had been slowly increasing in the months leading up to my return to the court. Playing basketball again has helped me keep my current A1C under 7%.
Fast forward to spring of 2022, and I have really gotten the hang of managing my diabetes. To the best of my ability, I eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise. While the former can sometimes be difficult due to my love for sweets, the latter is easy because I get to do my favorite activity again: hoop.
Especially in my early adult years, I never imagined that basketball would serve as both an emotional and a physical aid to defeating diabetes.
I know that I will be able to lean on my love of basketball to guide me through any darkness I encounter in my life, either related to diabetes or not. Even if there comes a time when I no longer play, I think my adoration just for watching the sport on television could help me cope with just about anything.
Lorin Sandretzky, nicknamed “Big Lo,” also uses his sports fandom in a similar way. Community support and a desire to improve his health helped him better manage his health and his diabetes. Sandretzky has been attending Seattle sporting events such as the Seahawks, SuperSonics, and Mariners games for decades. When he was diagnosed with diabetes in 2007, he was over 600 pounds. At the time, his doctors told him that if he didn’t lose weight, death was likely on his doorstep.
“At first I thought my life was over, but after lifestyle changes and a goal set of losing a pound a week I stayed with that and over the next six years, I lost 300 pounds,” he said.
Sandretzky says that he didn’t need any surgical procedure to obtain the results he needed. He made intentional choices to add more movement to his daily routine, and he prioritized his diet, striving to eat healthier foods. Combining those lifestyle changes with community support from the Seattle sports world meant he had an incredible drive to overcome his diabetes and find the will to live.
Big Lo says that even though his love for watching Seattle sports has been there during his toughest times, his desire to be an example for others has been the main driver in his journey towards a healthier lifestyle.
“I see myself as a good person and wanted to inspire folks struggling with their weight and/or diabetes,” he said. Because of his loyal fandom to the Seattle sports world, Big Lo has quite a large social media following who have been able to witness his health journey. “I figured if I kept my lifestyle of eating better and moving more, I could be an inspiration to people.”
While Big Lo’s story speaks to the inspiration that watching sports can have on someone, and the importance of leaning on a community of support, others find mental and physical relief from diabetes through playing sports and exercising, much like myself.
I turned for more insight to Rob Howe, a type 1 diabetes advocate and former professional basketball player for the Washington Generals, who started his own website and podcast, DiabeticsDoingThings.com, to help others living with the chronic illness. Rob has used his lifelong love of playing basketball to help him overcome his diagnosis for over 15 years.
“I have been playing basketball [for] as long as I can remember. My parents have this photo of me sitting in a big pile of toys and playing with my little basketball hoop and ignoring all the other toys around me. That spirit has stayed consistent through my entire life,” he told me.
“When I was diagnosed, it was in the middle of my sophomore season, and my first full season on varsity on my high school team. Because of how rapidly I developed [physically] after diagnosis and giving my body the insulin it needed, my friends used to joke that diabetes made me better at hoops.”
Howe also spoke about the ways that basketball teaches lessons that cross over into the world of diabetes, things like perseverance and resilience, which are crucial in the worlds of team sports and living with diabetes.
“I'm a big believer in sport because of the lessons you learn about overcoming adversity, preparation, goal-setting and working as a team,” Howe said. “I learned all those things from basketball and they certainly translated to how I responded to my diagnosis and the day to day challenges that come with managing a chronic illness.”
I asked Rob about the challenges of playing basketball as he gets older, when close management of diabetes becomes even more crucial due to the myriad of health issues that arise in middle and older-age.
“In terms of getting older, I don't believe that we lose the ability to perform activities we enjoy because we get older. I think we get older and stop performing activities we enjoy, so we lose the ability,” he said. “So, for me, I'm managing for the long term, taking care of my body and being grateful for all the places it's taken me with diabetes and all the places it will continue to take me with diabetes now and in the future. Ball is life.”
And while exercise and sports can be ways to take care of your mental health and help you build community, it also has obvious physical benefits, including helping people with type 2 diabetes address their insulin resistance.
Aerobic training in particular has a huge effect on insulin resistance. This includes exercises like walking, running, cycling, or swimming. People with type 2 diabetes have been shown to have better insulin sensitivity after doing aerobic exercise for one week or more, compared to those who do not exercise.
Many people who live with diabetes have a hard time finding an exercise they enjoy that will motivate them to keep up with a regimen. The important thing is finding some form of physical activity you can do consistently. You don’t have to enjoy running or lifting weights to exercise – yoga, walking, hiking, and dancing are all great forms of exercise. As long as you’re moving, you’re doing something right.
I struggle to find things to do to keep me active unless it’s playing basketball, but I will forever be grateful that one of my favorite things to do in the entire world will also help me stay alive longer to experience even more of it.
To learn more about the different kinds of exercise and their health benefits, check out some of diaTribe’s other articles, including: