Navigating winter and diabetes during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Navigating the cold weather of winter and diabetes has always provided a health challenge, but it may be a bit harder than­ usual this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Normally, when it's cold outside, people with type 1 diabetes (T1D) tend to have higher A1Cs because they get less exercise and eat more, as a study in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology found and I can personally attest to. Now, with many activities restricted because of COVID-19, there are even more obstacles to staying active and sticking to a diabetes diet plan.

Thankfully, you don't have to let frigid weather or the coronavirus stop you in your tracks! There's no need to let wintertime weather mess up your diabetes management — even during a pandemic. Here are some tips on thriving this season.

Keep moving

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that most adults with T1D get 150 minutes a week of medium-to-low intensity aerobic exercise, plus two or three sessions of strength exercises. That's easy for them to say, but how is anyone supposed to do that if gyms are locked down because of COVID-19, and it's too cold to run or walk for long periods outside?

I have T1D, and as the pandemic drags on and the cold winds blow, I'm often tempted to curl up on the couch and snooze instead of staying active. But I do my best to resist that temptation and devote about 20 minutes to either light jogging or a brisk walk every day, along with weight resistance work. If snow and ice make that difficult in your area, consider using a treadmill indoors. If I can do it, you can too!

If you're a bit more ambitious, there are many safe options for exercising and having fun outdoors when it's cold, from sledding to snowboarding to cross-country skiing. But people with T1D should take extra steps when preparing to mix diabetes and winter exercise.

If you go outside, suit up properly and keep your continuous glucose monitor (CGM) or glucometer close to your body in an inner lining or pocket. The cold weather can affect how some devices and equipment work, so do your best to keep important supplies warm and dry.

It's also crucial to take precautions against diabetic neuropathy, especially in the feet. When you're outside, keep your feet warm and dry with extra layers, and inspect your feet once you're home. Additionally, you may want to consider the time of day, as it's often colder in the mornings and evenings.

If it's entirely too cold to go outside, you can work up a sweat from the comfort of your own home! The International Diabetes Federation has a ton of daily exercises for your consideration.

Be extra vigilant about blood glucose levels

Not all people with T1D react the same way when exposed to cold temperatures: Some have lower blood sugar than usual, while others have higher blood sugar, according to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

To find out how your metabolism is reacting to the cold, be vigilant about monitoring your blood glucose this time of year. If you spot a trend of highs or lows during these cold weather months, you might need to make adjustments in food and insulin intake.

To stay on top of blood sugar monitoring, it helps to have the most advanced diabetes technology, including CGMs and insulin pumps. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a few other options on standby, such as test strips and injection supplies.

Eat well with healthy takeout and home cooking

Opportunities for indoor dining will probably be curtailed (or eliminated) for many months to come because of the pandemic, although regulations will vary based on where you live. Everyone should make their own risk calculations, but keep a recent study in mind: People who went to restaurants and bars were twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What about restaurants with outdoor seating on patios and sidewalks, with socially distanced seating and heating lamps that ward off the cold? Unfortunately, they're not a "foolproof way to avoid the virus," according to Cleveland Clinic. The organization noted that takeout food is the least risky option, as long as you sanitize your hands after coming in contact with the restaurant.

My family is doing a lot more home cooking during the pandemic. In my personal experience, it's had a positive impact on my diabetes management. It's easier to count carbohydrates and measure portions more accurately when we're preparing our own food!

You can find great diabetes-friendly recipes for wintertime cooking through websites and outlets such as Diabetic Gourmet. I've given rave reviews for a number of dishes, but my personal favorite is chunky chicken, vegetable, and rosemary stew. Another handy source of diabetes-friendly recipes that are easy to prepare is the ADA's Diabetes Food Hub.

Don't be stressed out by the "high risk" label

If you're like me, you got really anxious when initial reports of COVID-19 said that people with diabetes were more likely to develop serious complications if they got infected with the virus. While that's true, it's important to remember that having T1D doesn't make us more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus, according to JDRF. What's more, the ADA noted that if a person does contract COVID-19, their risk of getting very sick is likely to be lower if their diabetes is well-managed. We're still learning about the virus and its effects.

Scary as this wintertime pandemic is, I, for one, plan to use it as an extra incentive to focus on managing my diabetes. We're a strong, tight-knit community, and this is just another challenge we're learning to conquer.

Interested in learning more about tools to help meet the challenges of winter and diabetes management? Check out the rest of the Health Insights library of articles to discover new developments and access tips.

Diabetes Management Tip