Olympians are considered to be some of the healthiest and fittest people in the world so when former triple jumper Michelle Griffith-Robinson was diagnosed with prediabetes you can understand why she was confused, which is why she wants people to be careful about perception.
Griffith-Robinson has a family history of Type 2 diabetes so even though she has trained most of her life and represented her country at the Olympics before this wasn’t going to stop her diagnosis.
However, the 49-year-old was determined to make radical changes in her life to make sure her condition didn’t progress any further.
She has now teamed up with Fitbit UK and Ireland who are partnering with Diabetes UK whom she is an ambassador of to encourage people to maintain their health and fitness and raise awareness of diabetes.
Launched at the beginning of July and running until the end of September, the One Million Step Challenge is one way people can help raise money, awareness and help prevent diabetes.
Wembley-born Griffith-Robinson revealed what she had to change when she found out about her diabetes diagnosis, explained how she knew she had to go to the doctors to get herself checked out and spoke about her partnership with Fitbit.
Before you were diagnosed with prediabetes did you have any awareness of what it was?
Fortunately for me I’ve always had a bit of an awareness of diabetes because my grandmother passed away from diabetic complications, so she died from renal failure due to being a Type 2 diabetic. That was back in the Caribbean and you’re talking in the 1970s, so medicine wasn’t as up to date as it is now and in third world countries, so I had an element of knowledge about it then.
Then my mother when she was 58 was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes as well and then some of my first cousins, all from my maternal side, have been diagnosed with diabetes as well so I’ve had a relatively good platform of knowledge around what diabetes was and what it meant, so the pancreas not producing enough insulin. But I never thought for one minute that I would be shoved right into being prediabetic in 2018 coming from the background that I was in, being an Olympian, being really fit. I retired a good few years ago, but I still kept very fit, very active. I was quite surprised when they said to me after all these extensive tests: “You’re prediabetic.”
How did you know to go and get a check-up to see if you were prediabetic, were there any signs at all?
Yeah, looking back I think I was weeing elements of blood and having intermittent bleeding with my period, and I wasn’t sure why this was happening and then weeing a lot at night as well. I always knew that was a sign, weeing a lot was a sign of being diabetic so that in itself was my first sign.
I went to the doctors, and I tell the story all the time about being careful about perception. I walked in there and the doctor said we’ll do a pinprick test, so we did the test, but he said: “Oh you’re going to be fine anyway.” I did the pinprick, and I was fine but obviously I had to do some serious investigation as to why I was bleeding and checking my wee and stuff. After all of that they checked it all out and they said: “You’re prediabetic.” And I was like there’s no way I’m prediabetic. I was dumbfounded.
Again, I really say to people all the time be careful about the perceptions of people thinking that you’ve got to be overweight, obese, to be diabetic. That wasn’t the case for me. Back then I was a size 12, a healthy size 12. I ate pizzas, I ate salad, I ate chicken, I ate rice. I had a moderately very healthy diet with an array of different foods, didn’t drink alcohol that much but had the odd glass here and there. And literally I had to change my diet.
What are the risks that come with Type 2 diabetes?
When I was first told, like I said I have a good platform of knowledge already so I never for once thought I’m going to die from this, I just thought oh my gosh. The one thing that does always come to mind is amputation, you hear a lot about amputations and stuff like that and diabetics bleed a lot. I was very much aware of it, and I wanted to take hold of it quickly because I didn’t want to be one of those ones going hypo or hyper. I knew about the risk factors of that as well.
In fact, there was an incident once in a shopping centre in London and an elderly black lady said to me: “Excuse me ma’am, do you have any sweets on you?” And I said no but I remember running downstairs to Marks and Spencer’s, grabbing a packet of Percy Pigs and giving them to her and her saying: “I’m diabetic.” And I was like oh my gosh, wow. So, there was that incident and then probably about a year later I was diagnosed as prediabetic, and I was driving on the motorway, and I saw a car swerving and swerving and driving really erratic. I call the Police and the car crashed into the side and the Police rang me back on the Monday and I asked if he was a drunk guy and they said: “No, he’d gone into hyperglycaemic,” so all the time you’re learning about these things. But you don’t know the risk factors and that’s why my job as an ambassador for Diabetes UK is to always push leading a more heathier, active lifestyle, getting out and walking, just changing up a few things here and there can make a huge difference and decrease your risk as well.
Also, black and Asian minorities are at a much higher risk of developing Type 2 than a white person, so it’s lots to do with genetics, family history, just the way some of us are built are more at risk. My job is to really get that out there as much as possible and know that if you catch it in time, you can reverse it.
How radically did your diet change when you were diagnosed with prediabetes?
Yeah, I went quite radical. I went on a keto diet, I’m not advocating any of that for anybody else because I do believe one size doesn’t fit all, I believe you have to look at what works for you and what works for your lifestyle as well. As a lifestyle coach I say to people how can that fit into your life and being aware of the impact it can have on you as an individual rather than saying: “Oh I’m just going to try this, I’m just going to do it this way.” No, work out what works for you.
So, I went onto a keto diet for about three months. Very, very, strict. No carbohydrates at all, very high starchy fibre carbs. Lots of vegetables, soups, omelettes, eggs – I do a lot of work with Clarence Eggs because they’re the best eggs on the market. What I did as well from all of that is bring the family in on the same thing as well, so we all started having a much higher protein diet and lots more veg. Everyone’s into it, it really works. I cut out the rice and I’ve introduced it again over the last six months, I have a spoonful of rice at tea, I might have half a sweet potato, but I’ve cut down significantly and now every time I eat something I’m conscious of what’s going into my mouth.
What advice would you give to people who have been diagnosed with prediabetes and want to stop it progressing to Type 2 diabetes?
My advice to them would be to up your daily walking intake, your running uptake, your training uptake, so you could make sure you up your intake of everything. For me I’ve recently joined forces with Fitbit UK and Ireland and my Fitbit allows me to just check how many steps I’ve done, it’s just an accountability partner, so even just investing in something as small as that. Check your steps, monitor that, your training and also write down what you eat and speak to people and get some information of what you can modify.
The Diabetes UK website is fantastic, it gives you recipes and all different things that can almost support you along the journey. Be open minded to suggestions. You don’t really go wrong by eating lots of vegetables and some fish or chickpeas – you’re not going to go wrong. Avocado, healthy fats and monitor, I’m due another HbA1c check coming up again now.
Every six months check on yourself in the same way you would go and do your nails, you’d go and play golf, you’d do something fun – invest in you. Why are you not giving yourself your yearly, six monthly MOT check?
Would you say exercise is equally as important as diet or is one more important than the other?
I’ve been a personal trainer for 22 years now and I’ve been a coach and mentor for the past nine years so I would say to people for me because I’ve always trained, I had to go 75% on my food because I’ve always trained. I would actively be like right I’m going out for a walk; I’m going to do an extra 20 minutes on that, I would really make an effort of just constantly working, working, burning. And also, you want to feel good as well, there’s such a good thing about it. But I would say the food is where the biggest change and the biggest transformation happened from the food.
How significant is the partnership between Fitbit and Diabetes UK to raise awareness and support around diabetes?
I think the partnership is excellent, excuse the pun but it works hand in hand. Having my Fitbit on me holds me accountable. Throughout the day I check and see I haven’t done enough steps today, what’s my stress levels like today, what was it like yesterday, it allows me check back as well on how I’m getting on.
Also, I think sleep has a massive impact, so for me I’ve always been able to train, training is no problem for me, doing my steps has never really been the problem for me but my sleep, especially with social media because you can be on it late at night, it tells me that sleep has not been great this week, it just holds you accountable. Lack of sleep sometimes allows you to eat rubbish, it brings you into that spiral of not living good or clean. So, all of those things then have an impact on what you eat and how you’re going to feel the next day and what exercise you do as well.
How crucial do you think it is to have the One Million Step Challenge as it encourages people to keep fit and raise awareness and funds for Diabetes UK?
I think it’s absolutely brilliant and I’ve got loads and loads of my friends signing up for it. Coming out of the pandemic I think there’s no better time than now because I’ve got all my friends meeting up all over the country in different places doing their steps, checking in with each other and some of them are now able to meet up with each other saying: “Oh I only did 5,000 today.” So, it’s like right let’s go for a long walk today, let’s do 15,000 today. That in itself you’re getting the walking, talking, great mental health, great for wellbeing. At the same time, you’re getting fitter, you’re getting stronger and you’re raising vital funds for those who actually in essence could be prediabetic, could be a Type 2 diabetic as well or even a Type 1, so you’re raising vital funds for more research as well. I love it, I’m all over it.
As a personal trainer and life coach, how rewarding does it feel to know that you can help people and improve both their fitness and their life in general and potentially stop them from being diagnosed with diabetes?
I’m a lifestyle coach so I look at not just the wellbeing I look at anything that impacts them so it could be stress at work. Whenever they come to me with a goal it’s their goal, they own that goal, it’s not my goal and this is what I always say to people - it’s your agenda. When you’re coming to a life coach, it’s not my agenda it’s your agenda. If I’m mentoring that’s when I offer some of my input but if I’m life coaching it’s their agenda, they come with their goal. I generally see my clients every two weeks so just seeing them and watching their progression and watching them grow as individuals is very inspiring.
As a personal trainer that’s the same thing again, I started training my two ladies in the pandemic who are in their mid-50s, I started training them on March 23rd when lockdown happened in 2020 and we’ve trained three times a week no matter where we are across the country every single week since then. One of them is now on 0.25 of a blood pressure tablets which is fantastic, she’s lost over a stone in weight, they’ve both got their Fitbits as well and they are just living and loving life. That for me is very rewarding that I’ve managed to empower them to take hold of their own journey. It’s their agenda but I’ve empowered them and there’s consistency. There were times when they were flagging so I was like: “Okay guys what if we try it like this, how does it make you feel if we try that?” And they are all over it. They’ve inspired me with their consistency and their attitude towards training.
I say to people that you have to take some positives from this pandemic because it’s allowed us to do a lot more things virtually than we would have ever imagined before. If you can teach five-year-olds over Zoom you can coach two women online.
I would say the consistency is another thing I do really want to get out there. Be consistent. If you want change you need to be consistent in order to impact change. You can’t just say oh let me go mad, let me do this diet – all those diets are nonsense. You’ve got to say, right I’m going to start cutting out X, Y and Z, do it for a period of time and reintroducing it or I’m going to halve my portion size and I’m going to do 10,000 steps a day. But you’ve got to make that conscious effort and again if it can happen to me as an Olympian, a personal trainer, a life coach, it can happen to anybody.
This summer, Fitbit is supporting the Diabetes UK’s One Million Step Challenge, which is encouraging us to take between one million, or a half million steps before September 30th – that’s about 8,000 - 16,000 steps a day! Join the challenge today, to start stepping towards a healthier you, and to help raise funds that will change the lives of everyone affected by diabetes. Find out more and sign up here: https:/www.diabetes.org.uk/get_involved/fundraising-events/million-step.
Words by Lucy Roberts for Female First, who you can follow on Twitter, @Lucy_Roberts_72.