Diabetes is more widespread than people realise. GIL LIGHTFOOT reports on the challenges posed to sufferers tackling the disorder.
Fitness expert Gareth Heap knows what it takes to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
As the assistant club manager at the Old Hall Country Club and Spa, in Huntington, it is his job to advise members on exercise and diet to help them achieve health and fitness.
The one person not taking the advice is Gareth himself.
Now he has set himself a health challenge which could, quite literally, prolong his life.
For Gareth, aged 26, suffers from Type 1 diabetes, but since being diagnosed at the age of 17 he has paid scant attention to the medical advice which could alleviate some of his problems.
“I've been in denial," he says. "I'm a young man and I wanted to do all the things that someone of my age should be doing, not constantly thinking about my health."
With the encouragement of his boss, Old Hall owner David Bloomberg, and his colleagues, he is embarking on a health challenge which will put him back on the road to fitness and, hopefully, raise £20,000 for the charity Diabetes UK to help other sufferers.
Gareth was already working at the health club as a trainee gym instructor when the illness hit.
“I went blind,” he says simply. "I had been losing weight over a period of about six months, I was feeling tired all the time and feeling generally unwell. One night I went to the cinema with a girlfriend and as I sat watching the film my sight went. It was really strange.”
His sight gradually returned overnight but the incident worried him so much that the next day he headed straight for the doctors.
That's when Gareth was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. "The blindness was caused by a build up of sugar behind my eyes," he says.
"I was told my condition was not genetic, or caused by lifestyle, it is just one of those things that happens. But you expect diabetics to be older, or a lot younger, you don't really expect it at that age.
“I knew something wasn't right though, so, in some ways, the diagnosis came as something of a relief. At least I knew what was wrong.”
After the diagnosis, Gareth went through what is described as the 'honeymoon' period when the body still produces a small amount of insulin.
“It lasted three years and then my pancreas packed up,” says Gareth. "I'm now supposed to calculate how much insulin my body needs and inject myself four times a day. It can be very complicated and I do find it very difficult to cope.”
Although Gareth has managed to carry on working and build his career in the past nine years, he says the condition can be very difficult to deal with. He simply wants to be like his friends – enjoying nights out, eating and drinking what he wants.
“I can suffer mood swings and depression,” he says, “and having to maintain the illness can affect relationships. I'm nine years down the line and still in denial. I know what to do but I don't always do it.”
However, all that is about to change.
Gareth, who is under the care of the Countess of Chester Hospital and the Heath Lane Medical Centre, is well aware that carrying on regardless could lead to very serious health issues.
“I could go blind, suffer heart, liver or kidney failure and even lose my feet,” he says.
“I do miss my insulin injections sometimes and I often eat and drink the wrong things, but it is starting to affect my work and my health and I'm at a stage in my life when I want things to change.”
So when his boss, Old Hall Country Club managing partner, David Bloomberg, stepped in with a health challenge to lose weight, get his sugar levels under control and to tone up, Gareth decided to go for it – and raise money for charity at the same time.
“Since being diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago Gareth has struggled to maintain his weight, his fitness and his overall well-being,” said David. “This has resulted in days off and periods where his performance at work has been well below par. “After being at Old Hall for such a long time Gareth has become part of the family, He is extremely popular with members and with the all the staff who are supporting him all the way.
“I proposed this challenge as a radical way of changing Gareth's life once and for all. It really is a win win situation, if he’s successful he'll lead a longer and healthier life, he'll raise much-needed cash for Diabetes UK and he will also help to inspire others to change their life-styles.”
Losing the challenge will also have some immediate penalties for Gareth. The life-long Liverpool FC fan has agreed that if he fails to achieve his goals he will wear an Everton shirt and scarf at five home games.
But Gareth is determined to win.
He said: “I'm at an age when I really want to do this. I feel uncomfortable with the way I look and feel. If I don't change the way I live now the complications later on in my life will be devastating.”
He has the full support of his colleagues who have vowed to help him lose a stone and a half during the challenge by devising a fitness plan and putting him through his paces every other day.
David has offered him full use of the club’s facilities, a cardio vascular trainer, a flaxibility trainer, nutrition and diet advice, heart checks and health MOTs.
As well as help from his colleagues, Gareth also has the unwavering support of his family and friends.
Sainsbury's Boughton store, where his mum, Hilary, works, has agreed to back him by helping raise awareness of the challenge.
“We are calling this a 20 week challenge but for me it's for life," says Gareth. I need to make these changes but I'm really looking forward to it now. It’s not going to be easy – in fact it's going to be like starting all over again.”
Stephanie Lawless, regional fundraising manager for Diabetes UK North West said: “We wish Gareth every success in his challenge.
“He is clearly very motivated and we are extremely grateful for his commitment.
“His challenge highlights just how important it is for all people with diabetes to look after themselves by eating healthily and staying physically active.
“ Maintaining a healthy lifestyle contributes to reducing the risk of long term complications from diabetes such as blindness, amputation, kidney failure, heart attack and stroke.
“Physical activity is also important for helping people with diabetes maintain good blood glucose levels and manage their blood pressure.
“We wish Gareth the very best of luck and will be supporting him all the way.”
Sponsorship forms are available from Sainsbury's in Boughton and Old Hall Country Club.