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TV garden presenter Lee Burkhill: Keeping active and managing type 1 diabetes


Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes aged 16

“My biggest tip is to always have a snack to hand as time flies when you're enjoying mindful gardening. Meaning you don't need to keep taking off muddy boots when your blood sugar drops!”

Lee Burkhill, garden designer and TV presenter, known as the Garden Ninja, shares his experience of living with type 1 diabetes.


Finding out I had diabetes

I was diagnosed at 16 which threw my social life and school studies into chaos! Back then it was a case of mixing your own long and short-acting insulin and eating set amounts each day. Luckily it’s much easier now with tech like the Freestyle Libre and carb counting. I wish I’d have had access to the support back then that’s available now.


My reaction to diagnosis was pretty much shock! Back then there wasn't as much information on what type 1 diabetes was. I remember being given lots of leaflets and having to weigh food a lot. This was back before carb counting appeared so it was a real lifestyle change. The local hospital team were great but it was quite a lonely experience managing it on my own without any other type 1 diabetics in my social circle.

"I remember feeling quite anxious, especially when being out, about needing to carry snacks, blood kit and medication as before I'd been able just to leave the house with nothing more than a tenner in my pocket!"

Life with diabetes


I’ve been interested in gardening since I was a small child. My grandad was an old-school allotment grower.  He also loved a good rose garden so I learnt a lot about the growing season of vegetables and flowers. Though perennial flowers and wildlife were always my favourite part of gardening! Including having a pond. It was always a hobby of mine but then 8 years I decided to change careers. Garden design called to me and after a few courses and a lucky break winning a new garden design competition with the BBC and RHS, the rest became history!

The biggest challenge is the amount of travel and long working days. My TV work has me on set from 7.30am until sometimes 8pm filming the programme Garden Makeovers.

My own design practice has me travelling a lot to sites, and then consulting with clients, before spending time drawing up the designs. So I have a real mix of physical, creative and admin in my day. There are lots of last-minute tweaks and changes to my schedule as the weather, client needs or other work commitments appear. I'm pretty rapid at switching between tasks which I think you have to be when self-employed.


"The good news is that any form of gardening whether in a large garden or tiny balcony is both good for your mental health via stress relief and also physical activity, which is sometimes overlooked."

Digging in new plants, pruning and weeding are all low-impact cardio activities. So gardening is a far cheaper and more relaxed form of going to the gym! My biggest tips are to always have a snack to hand as time flies when you're enjoying mindful gardening. Meaning you don't need to keep taking off muddy boots when your blood sugar drops!

Diabetes UK and me


Diabetes UK offers a wealth of information for people with all types of diabetes. The forum is particularly useful if you have a very nuanced issue with equipment, odd glucose levels or guidance. The helpline is also a great support given how tricky it can be to get hold of community nurses or diabetic specialists within the NHS for those niggly questions.

Personal support

My friends and husband are incredibly supportive of my diabetes. Mainly by treating me no differently from if I didn't have it. They are very much hands-off unless something goes amiss. I think it's all about educating friends so they can understand the high-level issues or warning signs so they feel confident too.

They are all aware of the signs of hypo and will happily and quickly move in with some carbs if I sound like I'm going low. But they're not overly fretful given the Libre and my usual sound control, the perfect mix for a busy person like me!

"The Freestyle Libre has really been a game changer as my husband will quickly ask me 'how are your levels?' and within an instant, it can put our mind to rest."



"It was a bit like coming out again when I moved to the Freestyle Libre."

People saw it and asked what it was so I've been taking more about it. It's been lovely educating people on type 1 and also having their support. Even a quick 'everything good Lee?' on set whilst someone taps their arm where my Libre is.

"It makes me feel really supported without being swaddled by nervous snack holders trying to feed me every 5 minutes!"

Before the Freestyle Libre, checking bloods was a painful and frustrating process. Finding somewhere to wash your hands, sitting down somewhere, and fiddling with strips have all gone now. 

Real-time monitoring makes you able to see patterns and catch warning signs before hypos or hypers. I think if I'd had the Freestyle Libre when I was first diagnosed all those years ago it would have been far easier to get to grips with my diabetes.



TV garden presenter Lee Burkhill with a snowboard

I learnt to ski in my mid-twenties just as a hobby and then got totally bitten by the winter holiday bug! After a bad accident and a damaged knee I decided to switch to snowboarding which has taken pretty much all the pressure off my knees now vs skiing. What I love about it is the silence. My life is very noisy. Presenting, speaking to clients, and always in discussion with someone. Whereas snowboarding, a bit like gardening, is a really quiet and mindful activity. Your mind is totally focused on turning and being in the moment where every other work distraction or worry gets put on hold. I must admit I'm a total snowboard addict. I get away on my board for at least 3-4 weeks each winter all across the world. I work hard to play hard!

Diabetes challenges

The biggest challenge with winter sports is that you have to really plan your insulin and snack provisions when you're on the mountain. As you can be miles from anywhere I always have at least 3 snacks in the pockets or my jacket. Just in case I go low. Keeping insulin warm enough can be tricky so I use an internal lined pocket for that. The Freestyle Libre made checking blood super easy, as I used to have a back pack for my blood kit which I don't need. Making trips far lighter and less cumbersome.

"I find that when snowboarding my insulin ratio changes. So each day I'm on the mountain I tweak that ratio to keep my bloods perfect rather than going low. But it was trial and error for the first few years."

Tips for travel and diabetes

Be prepared is probably the best one. Whilst you can tell people around you about diabetes you do need to be responsible for yourself. I always travel with a backpack full of snacks, medication and everything I need. I don't rely on airport shops being open or other amenities.

I always travel with a full day’s worth of snacks and fluids, that way you're never caught off guard if your transfer doesn't show up or you're stranded. Also, time differences can cause people to panic with their basal rate. Go easy on yourself. I'd always rather run slightly high for 24 hours than end up having a hypo on a plane or on a coach. If travelling alone always tell the person next to you on a plane you're type 1. Just drop it into the conversation so at least they're prepared if you do have a hypo!

Speak to your healthcare team for personalised advice about managing your diabetes when travelling that's specific to your needs.

Get more tips on travel and diabetes.

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