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Interview: Lee Latchford-Evans

Dancing on stage as part of multi-platinum pop group Steps has kept Lee Latchford-Evans fit, but following a shocking family experience he works hard on raising awareness of obesity 

When he's not “driving us crazy” with his “boot scooting” dance moves Lee Latchford-Evans, one of the famous five that made up dance-pop sensation Steps, is working to raise awareness of diabetes. His interest in the disease was sparked in 2007 when his father found out he had the condition after suffering a stroke, which left him having to relearn basic functions such as tying his shoe laces and buttoning up a shirt.

Lee's father, who was 56 when he had the stroke, is one of around 850,000 people in the UK with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes.

Although there are three million people in the UK diagnosed with diabetes the number of people with the disease is much higher with one in 74 people remaining undiagnosed. Type 2 diabetes is much more prevalent than type 1, accounting for between 85-95% of cases. 

Half of those with type 2 diabetes already show signs of complications such as problems with the kidneys, limbs and nerves, drowsiness and disorientation by the time they come to medical attention.

It has strong links with obesity, waist size as well as ethnicity and age while type 1 diabetes is caused by the body's inherent inability to produce insulin.

Stroke is one of the complications of type 2 diabetes, and Lee's father, now 62, is typical of many whose diabetes symptoms go unnoticed until the effects finally culminate in a serious setback to their health. 

“He had a stroke, and it was through that he discovered he was diabetic as well,” says Lee, who is now a patron of Diabetes UK and has done triathlons, half marathons and the 300km London-Paris bike ride in aid of the charity.

Luckily, Lee's father is now fully recovered from the stroke and Lee says that people wouldn't think he had suffered a stroke if they met him now. 

He also keeps his diabetes under control with a careful diet rather than having to take any medication and monitors his blood sugar levels closely.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes include being thirsty, feeling more tired, blurred vision and going to the toilet more. But according to Pav Kalsi, Diabetes UK clinical advisor, a lot of people put these symptoms down to getting older, or tend to ignore them as they don't think they are serious.

Barbara Young, chief executive of Diabetes UK, says: “When you consider the potentially devastating health consequences of type II diabetes, it is shocking that so many people have the condition and do not know it… this is a real concern because it is only by getting the condition diagnosed early that people can start getting the treatment they need to prevent serious health complications including blindness, amputation, kidney failure and stroke.”

Early treatment is all the more critical given its toll on NHS resources and the National Institute for Care and Excellence (NICE) estimates that type 2 diabetes and its complications currently amounts to £8.8 billion a year, which is more than 8% of the NHS annual budget.

With treatment of type 2 diabetes in the first instance usually being a change in diet and exercise, Lee's father completely changed his lifestyle following his diagnosis: “As you do when you find out something about yourself, you look at life in a very different way. The fridge was restocked let's say with healthier items, and he became a little bit more active than he was… he used to smoke, now he doesn't smoke; he used to drink, now he doesn't drink. The sugar has been cut back - the food he eats and when he eats,” says Lee, who sold more than 20 million records during his time with Steps from 1997-2001. 

Lee added that the diagnosis had been a big shock to everyone in the whole family, and that it was a question of, “where do we go from here?” 

“Like anything, if you're told you have something, they'll be a lot of questions. What do I do, where do I go and how do I deal with it?”

“Because I'm quite active myself, I like to get involved in the sporting events. For me, the triathlon has been the most challenging because I'm not a great swimmer. I had to go off and get a few swimming lessons just to be sure, whereas riding a bike is second nature,“ says Lee, who is 38.

Lee was also very impressed by the number of people with diabetes participating in the London-Paris bike ride and learned a lot about diabetes from them.

“People talked to me about their experiences; the insulin and how that works at certain times, what they carry around with them, when they eat—there's a bit of maths involved actually. It proves what I said before, that it's not the end of the world and you can learn to live with it. Everybody's body is different. How you're going to react to it is going to be different. It's your food, your time, your lifestyle—make it work for you.”

Diabetes runs in Lee and his wife Kerry's families as they both have a grandfather with the disease and Kerry's mother also currently has type 2 diabetes, meaning that both Lee and Kerry are predisposed to developing the condition. 

Sagen Zac-Varghese, specialist registrar in Diabetes and Endocrinology at Charing Cross Hospital said: “Though type II diabetes is classically associated with older age, many people don't realise that it can be inherited. If you have one parent with type II diabetes, your personal risk of developing it in the future is 30%, and if both your parents have type II diabetes, then your risk increases to 60%. Risk of type I diabetes also increases with family history, however, it does not have as strong a link with family lineage as type 2.”

Consequently, Lee and Kerry are very careful about leading a healthy and active lifestyle, which luckily, is not difficult for Lee as he has always enjoyed keeping fit: “I've always been a nutcase at school—running around the football field, playing tennis, in the gym, going on the trampoline or playing badminton. I'm not a desk person and I'm not that good in the office, but I'm great when it comes to outdoors and physical activity.”

Giving us an insight into his daily routine, Lee tells us: “I wake up about 6.45. I'll have breakfast straight away. I think that's the key thing for most people. A lot of people miss breakfast because of busy schedules, but it's very important that we don't miss breakfast because it fires our metabolism and sets us up for the day. I'll always have breakfast, I'll always do a work out - a cardio or circuit-based workout; or if I'm training for an event, I'll do training such as running, swimming or biking for a triathlon. A bit of weights and kickboxing. I'll try to work out five time a week.”

With the growing incidence of obesity worldwide, especially in young people, diabetes is a ticking time bomb.

National surveys in England suggest that about three in 10 two-to-15-year-olds are overweight or obese, while 16% are obese. 

Unless changes to diet and physical activity are made, Diabetes UK warns that five million people will develop the condition by 2025 - twice the number recorded five years ago.

 The NHS recommends that children under five who can walk unaided should be physically active for at least 180 minutes each day, while children and young people from 5-18 years should undertake at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity daily. 

Adults 19-64 years old and older people (65+) are recommended to undertake 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity each week, including muscle strengthening activity.

Comparing how much recreational activities have changed since he was growing up, Lee says: “As a child, I would go to the window and there would be people outside playing football, running down the street - that's what children used to do. Nowadays, you look outside, and there's no one out there. They're all on their computers inside. You need to be active, you need to get out and do more. Anything that gets you away from the computer and off the couch is good exercise.”

A fully qualified personal trainer, Lee shares the following tips with his clients about controlling weight:   

“The key thing about weight which a lot of people don't realise is that eating really healthy small meals quite often - say five meals a day - is a lot better than two meals a day that are really massive meals and that just overload you.”

Lee himself eats a minimum of three meals a day and sometimes four, with the odd protein shake or a USN (ultimate sports nutrition) supplement.

He says that although a change in diet can often be enough to lose weight, to benefit aesthetically, it needs to be combined with exercise:

“There's a saying - if you look good in your clothes, you're on the right diet. If you want to look good naked, you have to do a bit of exercise as well.”

While controlling your weight is important, going solely by the scales can be misleading says Lee: “The worst thing you can do is follow the scales. For example, if you have a pound of fat and a pound of muscle, they both weigh a pound, but the fat is a lot bigger. So when you start to lose the fat, you're losing a lot of space, but what's happening is that you gain a bit of muscle because you're toning up, so the change in the scales won't be as drastic as you think. As muscle is denser, you are going to be a bit heavier, but you won't be as big - you'll be a lot slimmer and more toned - and you'll probably fit into clothes you've never fitted in before.”

Lee adds that rather than focusing energy on strict dieting, the key is in adopting a healthy lifestyle: “People get carried away in the world of fad diets and quick fixes, and what you have to do is make it part of your life so that it fits into your schedule and routine, and that's what I do.”

When Lee is on tour, it is just as easy to keep fit if not even more so as dancing is very good exercise and they follow a very set routine day-to-day:

“When you're dancing for two hours a night, you're burning the calories and doing the cardio anyway. Also, you have a very set routine. For me, you would have breakfast, and then I would go and work out, then interview throughout the day, get to the arena, then do performance for two hours. For us, that's over 40 days.”

As well as being a celebrity fitness trainer, Lee is also currently involved in theatre and will be starring in the pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk in Southport this December. Next year, he will also be launching Exerlife, a website combining information on exercise and lifestyle.

To help identify people who are at high risk, the NHS runs a programme called the NHS Health Check which provides a risk assessment every five years for those aged 40-74 for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke or kidney disease if they have not already been diagnosed. 

Furthermore, each year, Diabetes UK organises diabetes roadshows across up to 90 locations in the UK where people can learn more about diabetes, receive a free Type 2 diabetes risk assessment and chat to expert dietitians.

Both Lee and Kerry have helped out at free health assessment for diabetes event for Diabetes UK in the past and are strong proponents of regular check ups: “It's like anything, MOT your body once a year, just go out and do it!”