Melling opens eyes to diabetes, exercise

Jamie Melling cannot wait to get started.

With the new school year getting underway, Melling, just like many first-year students, has a feeling of eager anticipation inside him. “You can’t help but feel the excitement of a new school year. I would have been a first-year student in ’96,” he says. “I was at Saugeen (residence) so I was able to see the university through different eyes, I guess.”

The University of Western Ontario kinesiology assistant professor (anatomy) won’t be the first person to tell you to exercise. He just wants you – especially those with diabetes – to be safe while doing so.

Earlier in his career, Melling saw a void of information on how those with diabetes need to address their exercise regiments. So he began looking into how physical health and managing diabetes could meld. It’s a research he continues to focus on to this day.

“The difficulty is that every time they take on an activity that changes their glucose balance,” says Melling, who completed his undergraduate and PhD in kinesiology at Western. “So when you start exercising, in particular young kids, they start experiencing hypoglycemic episodes – which is a sharp fall in glucose – and there is very high risk for going into an insulin-induced coma. There are a lot of challenges with them in how to exercise and how much.”

But that’s not an excuse for sitting on the sideline.

“Initially, they were cautious about high-intensity activities, but what kind of spurred me on what that we don’t know much about what and how much exercise they can handle,” he says, noting examples of elite athletes who are diabetic, such as former hockey player Bobby Clarke, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Sam Fulds.

“You look at these athletes and say ‘Where did they overcome those kinds of barriers in exercise?’ A lot of research started coming out saying the higher intensity the better control you have with the fluctuation in your glucose. So that’s kind of where we kind of approached with our models, doing resistance exercise,” Melling continues. “Before, that would never be considered for a diabetic. So there were exercises that are more strength training that would be have been avoided in the past, but certainly they can benefit from them now.”

Unlocking that answer rests in understanding how the changes occur in the body while exercising and recognizing when blood sugar is starting to go down. If one can identify those signs while exercising then steps can be taken to control it.

Beyond his research, Melling feels he understands the struggles of first-year students, and looks for every way to connect with them.

“I find they (students) are more willing to communicate with you when they know that you were that student at one time, especially the first-year students, who just sort of look at you like you’re from another planet,” he says. “But when you say ‘Ya, I was at Saugeen,’ and they’re like ‘The Zoo?’ or I tell them I’m a Toronto Maple Leaf fan, I find when they come in for office hours we start with those types of stories or connections we’ve made. It’s an ice-breaker but it also shows that you understand and care and it’s not just the old story that the professor doesn’t care about you, just write the exam and move on.”