Scrawny Boy With Type 1 Diabetes Becomes Mr. Universe

This article was originally published in Diabetes Health in June, 2007.

Doug Burns poses for the camera with his pump.

| Sep 22, 2008

These days, Doug Burns is a modern Sampson. The reigning Mr. Universe, he’s two hundred pounds of sheer muscle and the picture of good health. Of the skinny little boy with type 1 who used to work out in the woods alone, all that remains are a wry sense of humor and an attractively self-deprecating manner. They’re unexpected in a man who’s triumphed in the uber-masculine world of bodybuilding, but there’s a lot that’s unexpected about Doug Burns.

Doug was born in Washington DC, into a family without a bit of type 1 history. His dad, who worked with NASA, moved the family to the backwoods of Mississippi when Doug was about eleven. By that time he’d had type 1 for four years, ever since a severe episode of keto-acidosis at age seven. He was what used to be called a “brittle diabetic,” taking multiple injections of NPH and Regular, and he had problems with the delayed effect of the Regular. On top of that, he was trying to handle his testing with urinalysis, which could be six hours off the mark. Consequently, he was frequently in keto-acidosis or insulin shock, with constant episodes of both extreme highs and extreme lows.

As a result of his sugar management problems, Doug weighed only 58 pounds by the time he was eleven. Known as “the bag of bones,” he was beaten up by pretty much everybody in school. He still remembers a girl in fifth grade who whacked him with her purse and “beat the hell out of me right in front of the class.”  In Mississippi he wasn’t bullied as much, but as an emaciated kid with a disease no one had heard of, he was ostracized as an oddity.

Doug Burns as a skinny seven year old in the park with his sister.

At the age of twelve, in 1977, Doug came across a picture of the Biblical Sampson holding a lion in a headlock. He’d never seen anything like Sampson’s hugely muscular body, and for the skinny, lonely boy, the sight was a revelation. That night he prayed zealously for a half hour to be changed into a Sampson. When he woke the next morning as skinny as ever, he gave up on miraculous intervention and decided to take matters into his own hands.

Doug’s physician tried to forbid him to lift weights, but he was so hell-bent on becoming Samsonesque that he ignored the doctor. Unfazed by the absence of gyms in backwoods Mississippi, he made late night forays to the junkyard and jerry-rigged his own gym with old pulleys and bags of concrete.  Using an outdated issue of Ironman magazine as his guide, he trained in his makeshift gym in the woods come hell or high water, in the company of raccoons and bobcats, and once right through a tornado.

About the same time that he started working out, Doug got hold of a home glucose meter. His control improved immediately, and once that happened, his world opened up. No longer a bag of bones, he joined the football team, became the most valuable running back, and found a group of buddies to work out with. He and his friends would go to Wolf River, dive from the trestle, and train out in the sun with weighted dumbbells. Where the river rapids flowed through a canyon, they swam upriver like salmon.

At age fifteen, after only two years with the weights, Doug began power-lifting competitively. He placed dead last in his first competition, but by the time he graduated from high school, he had set American records in drug-free power lifting in the adult open class. Following his success as a powerlifter, he began entering bodybuilding competitions. In November 2006, the boy formerly known as “the bag of bones” became Mr. Universe.

Doug Burns armed with his pump.

Now the perfect model of a modern Sampson, Doug is 5 foot nine inches and weighs between 187 and 200 pounds. Had it not been for diabetes, he believes, he probably would not have become a body builder. He credits his career to an overwhelming drive to overcome the disease, upped by his initial desire to fit in. And then, “Once you get pissed off about something, you say the hell with it, I’m going all the way.”

Doug went on the pump only last year.  He was offered a pump by MiniMed long before, but he was swimming in the Pacific Ocean on a daily basis, so he turned it down. He likes his Animas pump because it’s so easy to moderate his insulin doses, which change drastically depending on how he’s training. When he was powerlifting, he was much heavier, in the 220s, and his cardiovascular work was next to nothing. When he began competing in bodybuilding, however, he did constant cardio, lost twenty pounds, and lowered his body fat from 14 percent to 4.7 percent. As a result, he had to come down 87 percent on his insulin, dropping from a daily 50 to 60 units of basal insulin down to eleven units a day. By the time he was ready for the show, one unit of insulin was more than enough to cover the same amount of carbs that twelve units had covered before.

When he’s getting ready for a contest, Doug moves his testing frequency way, way up. Because his body fat is coming down so drastically, he starts using cardiovascular work to chase his glucose. He begins pulling off of bolus injections; instead, he moderates what he’s eating in conjunction with whatever training he’s doing.  So he takes glucose when he knows he’s going to need it, and then does aerobic work right afterward to “just burn the heck out of it.”  As his body fat keeps dropping, the whole mechanism keeps improving and improving.

When he was first competing, Doug didn’t know any other athletes who had diabetes. He was aware of one other diabetic bodybuilder way back, but that fellow got into the anabolic scene. Doug’s never used drugs, but he trained at Gold’s Gym in Venice for seven or eight years, and the drug use there, he reports, was rampant. The organization within which he competes, the International Natural Bodybuilding Association, is completely clean and tests for everything under the sun. The two other bodybuilding organizations, however, are sullied by steroids. It’s unfortunate, he says, because steroid use has distorted a previously healthy quest to attain a classic figure, twisting it into a battle of cartoon characters.

Doug’s never run into any prejudice against diabetes in the gym, though he is very open about testing and his pump. People sometimes give him the eye, thinking that insulin might be advantageous in competition, but insulin is of no use to him in that respect because if his insulin ever goes high, he can’t shed body fat and get lean enough to compete. For competitions, he brings his insulin dosage down to probably less than that of a non-diabetic person.

Doug Burns works out at the gym.

At the moment, Doug is debating whether to re-enter Mr. Universe. In the meantime, he’s preparing for the California Challenge, a cardio event he’s organizing with friends that entails a hike through Yosemite, a bike ride through Death Valley, and a swim from Alcatraz. It’s part of his new quest, following his triumphs in the arena of strength and world of physique, to conquer the cardio world. In the future he’s thinking of doing something on the lines of what Jack La Lanne did, maybe stunts like swimming to Alcatraz towing a boat. He says he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Jack, at the age of ninety, bang out twenty pushups like it was nothing.  Right now, Doug and his endocrinologist, Dr. Hayes, who also has type 1 diabetes, are starting a social-networking fitness company called Sugar Fitness that will be launched in late April. His book on health, fitness, and weight loss, called The Diabetes Antidote, will also be out at the end of April.

Before he formed his company and was able to arrange group insurance, Doug was without health insurance for two years. When he broke his finger, he had to set it himself because he couldn’t afford the medical bills. Seeking insurance on an individual basis, he was dumbfounded to receive quotes from $1950 to $2,600 per month. During his two years sans insurance, he couldn’t afford to get his eyes checked or have any blood tests, and he felt pressured to work out even more obsessively in order to stave off complications. He is adamant that major changes in the health system are called for, because it’s shamefully hard for people with type 1 to get insurance if they can’t piggy-back onto a company plan.

Doug loves ocean swimming, but does most of his cardio work in the hills of California. He also hits the elliptical pretty frequently and the treadmill on a regular basis. One of the most effective ways he’s found to combine both aerobic and anaerobic exercise is with full-on sprinting. He does 40s and 100s, and he finds that it literally gives a hammering to his metabolism, so he’s geared up for the next ten hours.

Doug’s last A1c was 5.9.  His blood pressure is on the verge of being too low, about 100 over 70.  His resting pulse rate when he won the Southern States was 39. He tries to keep his sugar readings super tight by forcing himself to pay attention, and his current blood sugars vacillate from the high fifties to 170.  He tries to stay between 70 and 110.

Doug has no complications of diabetes at all, and he attributes this mostly to his aerobic work. He has talked with scientists at length about the effect that cardio has on the buildup of AGEs (advanced glycosylated end products), and he’s convinced that the increased blood flow, coupled with adequate to higher levels of water intake, acts like turpentine cleaning a dirty pipe.  He believes that active cardio work over an extended period of time is unbeatable for keeping the vessels open.

Doug emphasizes that for him, it’s not about diet and exercise: It’s about exercise and diet.  Exercise is primary.  He says that diets are misleading, in that they promise that you can simply eat your way to health. He does have a particular diet that he follows, leaning a little more on protein. He “eats very, very clean” throughout the week and gives himself one day to enjoy whatever he feels like having. He loves Cajun food with a passion, and his favorite beer, Chili Creek, is spiced up by a big hot pepper inside the bottle.

Doug doesn’t take any meds except children’s aspirin, but he takes a lot of supplements, including isolated whey plus whey concentrate, multi-vitamins and minerals, essential fatty acids, L-glutamine and carnatine. He notes a distinct beneficial effect when he takes supplements, which he uses to advantage when preparing for competition: He works without supplements until he is in the best possible shape, and then adds the supplements to take it up a notch. He notes that his way is the antithesis of the public’s inclination to take the magic potion right from the get-go. He has always done the work first and then used the supplements as an adjunct to the hard work.

Doug Burns helps a fellow weight lifter with her form.

Doug has virtually every meter, but likes the Ultra Smart, especially the five-second reading, though most meters have that now.  He also has the Ultra 2, and he likes the Dex 2 meter by Ascensia with the little circular cartridge inside because the cartridges are especially handy while driving. He’s been thinking about moving to a continuous glucose monitor, maybe the Paradigm, but sees CGMs as still pretty chunky relative to a pump. He thinks that a CGM would be hard to wear and that he might end up wrecking it.

Doug developed his self-deprecating sense of humor as a way of disarming his childhood adversaries, and it’s been part of him ever since. Poking fun at himself after a low blood sugar makes the incident easier to stomach and less daunting to others. When he makes light of something, it’s a way of defining it for himself and for everyone else too. Recently, however, during an incident which cannot be lightened with humor, he was beaten by police during an episode of hypoglycemia. Despite his medic alert jewelry and wallet cards, the police assumed that he was intoxicated. The incident serves to underscore the fact that police and security guards need to be far better educated about diabetes and hypoglycemia.

Doug says that when he speaks at diabetes conferences, the kids in the audience sometimes assume that because he’s a successful professional athlete, diabetes somehow went away and doesn’t apply to him anymore.  He’s quick to emphasize that he faces the same daily struggles that they do. He always has to pay attention, and the pitfalls never cease to exist. Kids sometimes feel that when they go low or have a bad day, they’re all alone, the only ones who have such problems. When they hear that someone who’s set a record still has to struggle just like they do, it’s a revelation to them. Doug makes it clear that he still has bad days and doesn’t feel like training, but that’s where his sense of discipline comes in.

Diabetes has been a spur to Doug.  He believes that the discipline required to manage the disease ultimately benefited him, carrying over into the discipline that he needed to succeed as an athlete.  He advises kids to accept diabetes for what it is, simply an obstacle like any other, one that they can use instead of letting it use them.  He tells kids, number one, don’t think of yourself as defective merchandise because that’s just not the case, and number two, pursue your dream no matter how far-fetched it might seem.  Just make diabetes come along with you. Never give up.

That stubbornness may be why Winston Churchill, the relentless bulldog of a man who refused to quit no matter what, is one of Doug’s favorite people.  He was also inspired by Sampson, of course, by Dr. Billy Graham, and by Bo Jackson, whom he reveres as one of the greatest athletes of all time. His biggest inspirations are his three kids, ages twelve, ten, and eight.  He’s no longer too concerned that his children will get type 1, but when they were younger he used to test their sugar on the sly when they were asleep.  His son remembers being awakened by his dad poking his toe to test his sugar, just to be sure. Now his kids are active as heck. His little girl can bang out 50 pushups nonstop.

If Doug were advising kids going into weightlifting, he’d tell them to give the pump a try if they’re able to. Sometimes they’re not able to: At the conventions where he’s spoken, some of the kids are on the impoverished side, toting around meters that are ten years old. He always tells them, hey, you don’t have to have to have the best of the best of equipment. He assures them that they can do it with virtually nothing. After all, Mr. Universe started out in a homemade gym out in the backwoods.

See also:

Doug Burns interview on Diabetes Health TV

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Posted by Anonymous on 14 November 2007

I 'm 13 and I got f=diabetes. the same thing happend to me when I was young. I'm doing bad with my diabetes but i'm working onit!

Posted by Anonymous on 4 December 2007

Im a type 1 diabetic too. i have had it since april 25th 2007. i have a pump too. (animas2020) this web page has enlightened me and i am glad to know im not like the only person on earth with diabetes!!! =)

Posted by Anonymous on 24 December 2007

posted by anonymous on the 27th april, this guy really has no clue, no doubt he is the model of perfection and never made a mistake in one form or another in his life, what a hero,(NOT)

Posted by Anonymous on 13 January 2008

I am 31 active police officer recently placed on insulin after years of pills. I have always been physically fit and was a little worried about getting puny with the new medicine. Maybe the pump is what I need.

Posted by Anonymous on 3 February 2008

Great Inspirational story. Thank you Mr.Burns. I am 31 year old and got diagnosed for Type 2 diabetes last week. I thought my world has come to an end. I am still getting my facts right about diabetes. I had never known about the little kids who are suffering from Type 1 until last week. After reading this story I am getting so inspired not just to take care of myself but also to do some social service for the little ones who are living with Type 1 diabetes.

Posted by Anonymous on 20 February 2008

I found your article while researching discrimination and diabetes. My husband and two sons have type 1 diabetes. Recently my husband had a low sugar at work that resembled behavior of being "drunk" or "childish play" during his break. The cameras show him tapping a female employee repetedly with an empty soda bottle. It wasn't until she loudly said stop that he realized he was low and ate some candies before returning to work. She filed a complaint against him for this action. Others in the break room are show by the cameras to be either sleeping or disiterested. My husband was called into the office, suspended from work for three days and transferred to another facility due to this incident. All through this he has tried to explain that he had a very low sugar and doesn't remember any of this. He is very unhappy at the new work place, feels humiliated to have been suspended, and continues to ask for them to return him to his previous position where he was well respected and happy. Thus far, no one will listen! Managemet says that they must respect the female employee's complaint or she might sue the company. Once she learned about his diabetes, she offered to sign a waiver saying she withdraws the complaint. What can we do to help him and OTHERS who might experince such treatment?

If anyone has any suggestions, we would appreciate them. By the way, my husband has been at this company for over 30 years and has never had a blemish on his good work history. His close control and dedicated efforts to be healthy have been punnished. Much like Doug, those in power don't/won't listen! Better education is vital!

Posted by Anonymous on 22 February 2008

My name is Ryan and I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes January 2005.I am 12 years old and weigh 85lbs.I never thought it would be possible for me to get big muscles because of my diabetes and I have always been so scrawny!! Now I realize that it is possible and I have been working out with my trainer Larry Pacifico 2 times a week.

Posted by hectorv04 on 3 March 2008

To Mr. Doug Burns regarding the incident in which he was arrested and allegedly beaten.
I sympathize with our disease that creates this diabetic shock symptoms. However, you must accept responsibility for your actions as well.
You did not carry your diabetic bracelet to identify yourself as having this condition. Equally, you assaulted a polic officer in the streets where they have no immediate way to determine your condition (you are body builder and very strong so you definitley are capable of injuring an officer as you did that evening). I am a diabetic and go into shock from time to time. I have learned to carry my bracelet and to carry sugar tablets so I do not get into the trouble you did. You are using your disease as excuse to assault a police office (who is disabled for six months) and trying to get rich by suing. Shame on you sr and if you have any respect for all of us diabetics, you should appologize to the officers you attacked and
suck it up". You should not expect police to determine if you are intoxicated/ill in the middle of a fight. You as a diabetic have the responsibility to carry your diabetic bracelet and carry sugar tablets so you do not get into this situation and blame the police. So have the decency to drop the law suit and learn to carry appropriate identification if you get into shock and donlt hide behind the disease to get away with assaulting the police.

Posted by Anonymous on 5 March 2008

Hectorv04, what fight ? There was no fight. The police assumed, and hurt the man seriously, they even managed to cut his face and cause what very well might be permanent nerve damage.

Nobody's hiding behind their diabetes here or using it as an excuse for assaulting a police officer, that's a disgraceful thing to say.

Posted by Anonymous on 14 March 2008

if you read all the articles on this subject you will learn that he did indeed have on a diabetic bracelet along with a card in his wallet. granted there was probably no time to look in his wallet but the bracelet was clearly visible. sounds like some power hungry cops chompin at the bit to be able to tell everyone that they beat up mr universe. its B.S. those cops need a reality check.

Posted by Anonymous on 13 April 2008


Posted by Anonymous on 10 May 2008

I just wanted to let you know that your article was very inspiring to me. I'm 26 years old and have just started to get my feet wet in the weight lifting idea. I'm loving it. A problem I face is the issue of cardio, but constantly working on it. I just think its amazing how much insulin intake is cut. It's funny I was diagnosed when I was 12 and back then I was also called the bag of bones by my parents. I just graduated college and now looking for employment, but in the meantime have had enough time and energy to give weight lifting a shot. I'm just glad I finally got the chance to give it a shot. Hopefully everything will work itself out in the end. Great inspirational story.

Posted by Anonymous on 9 June 2008

Does anyone know how I could convince my parents to let me start lifting weights?

Posted by thepaperstreetsoapfactory on 6 July 2008

I don't know how to tell your folks to let you body build other than to tell you to keep on them and fight like hell so you can follow your dream.Tell them about all you'll get out of the experience, staying in shape, eating right learning about health and nutrition etc and staying active.Don't back down and don't give up!Have some faith and stick with it. Sneak out of the house if you have to and find a gym you can get involved with.Get on it then let everyone know how it goes for you.All the best!!!

Posted by thepaperstreetsoapfactory on 6 July 2008

I've been having high bs readings as soon as I start lifting (having nothing to do with calories/diet and insulin intake).Is this caused by adrenaline and if so what can be done about it?

Posted by Anonymous on 8 July 2008

i have had type 1 for over 30 yrs. At the age of 20 i was a nutcase in the gym mabye a little vein. A word to the people with type 1 DON'T LET YOURSELF GET OVERWEIGHT!!!!

yours truly

Posted by Anonymous on 9 July 2008

Mr. Burns filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court on February 27, 2008. He then dismissed his lawsuit in June 2008.

Posted by timgodson on 13 July 2008

doug u inspire me!
im 29 this year i have had type 1 since i was nine i take nova rapid when required and take 45 lantus at night, im aBOUT 6FT AND ANBOUT 95 KG, i store most my weight around my gut.. can u please tell me how i can manipulate my insulin to get gains as i would really ike to be as u .

Posted by muhammed twair on 6 August 2008


Posted by Anonymous on 22 September 2008

Backwoods Mississippi? The place where they didn't beat him up for being odd? The place where he began all his accomplishments, laid all the groundwork? This is backwoods - the Stenis Space Center where every engine that lifts an astronaut into space is tested?

Your bias was showing.

Posted by Anonymous on 24 September 2008

im so deppressed i just got out iv hospital and am losing teeth and feel like just giving in

Posted by Anonymous on 3 November 2008

What an incredibly inspiring story.

There are so many messages in it for readers - such as 'never give up', 'find something that works', 'follow your dreams' 'the experts aren't always correct'.

Doug's courage, perseverance and truly amazing achievements make him a shining example for all.

Posted by fitrn on 13 November 2008

I am very inspiried by your story and success. Despite living a healthy lifestyle and no family history, I was diagnosed 8 years ago as a type 1 at the age of 31. Shortly after my diagnosis I began running and became even more passionate about my health and well being. I ran a marathon 13 months after my diagnosis and have done many half marathons and sprint distance triathalons in southern ca. I have a medtronic insulin pump with a continuous blood glucose monitor. As a registered nurse in an ER I still struggle with balancing my blood sugars and push my athletic abilities. I welcome any and all advise from others with the same type of issues. My hope is to continue my current workout with a personal trainer to lower my body fat to 17%(in the female athletic category) and promote health and fitness among other insulin pump users.

Posted by Anonymous on 12 February 2009

I also have type 1 diabetes, diagnosed at 18 years old. Not many off you know it but we have a great advantage with having to take insulin injections and bulking. learn how to eat/train and inject right and you can become a monster.

Posted by Anonymous on 22 February 2009

I am 21, i v been diagnosed with diabetes at 14, i workout 5 times a week but i just do the same as a regular person and don't take my insulin at a specific time before going to the gym, i am 5'8'' and I have now been on a plateau at 193lbs for a few months, any recommendations for dieting and insulin intakes to buff up,i am using a pump. Thanks

Posted by Anonymous on 8 April 2009

Tengo diabetes tipo 1,desde hace mas de 20 aƱos y practico el deporte de las pesas en gimnasio casero,como de todo y me encanta la cerveza,hasta la fecha de hoy no tengo ninguna complicacion por mi diabetes

Posted by Anonymous on 13 May 2009

im 18 and iv had type 1 diabetes since i was around 4, caused me no problems though, just started weights too so hopefully i can find some sort of protein shake that is good for me

Posted by Anonymous on 28 November 2009

I love this guy! He's my new hero - for sure! Just got my new Animas Ping (Pink :) less than a month ago.... LOVE LOVE LOVE it!!! Had the IR1200 before that. I've had diabetes for almost 20 yrs... the last 5 with my Animas pumps have been the best control & best QUALITY of life ever!!!

Posted by Anonymous on 4 December 2009

hey my name is cody lakes and I have had diabetes for about 3 months I am 16 and very intersted in bodybuilding but I need workouts and I dont now what to take like supplements or protien so I am 130 lbs and about 5'5. I want to learn really bad.

Posted by Anonymous on 29 December 2009

This story is very inspiring. I am a type 1 diabetic who was diagnosed when I was 15 I am currently 19. I always try to stay optimistic even though most diabetics I know are usually negative. It is very refreshing to read this story and everyone's comments. I also love to workout so I can definetly relate to this story. I think one of the best things you can do for yourself is to participate in a cardio workout and resistance workouts. This is what helps me keep my blood sugars in control, having a pump has also been very beneficial. I have been trying to get the dexcom continuous glucose monitor but I am not sure if my insurance will cover it . :)

Posted by GreggTypeone on 25 February 2012

I have had Type 1 diabetes for seven years now and I am 19 years old. I am in my second year of college and am doing a paper on diabetes and working out for an advanced English class, and Doug burns has been someone who has shown up in my research time and time again. I wish there was some way I could contact this inspiration and talk to him. His story is really motivating and talking to him about how to achieve what he has would be a blessing on my research and in my life.

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