Super-fit PM's family history of ill-health

by TAHIRA YAQOOB, Daily Mail

Tony Blair exercises regularly and is almost certainly the fittest man in history to hold the post of Prime Minister.

Counting against him, however, is his gruelling schedule and a family history of serious illnesses.

He is known to work out several times a week, often exercising early in the morning on the rowing and running machines of his gym in Downing Street.

He also plays tennis and football with his children at Chequers and swims.

Perhaps his genetic history has encouraged him to look after his health.

Both his parents were struck by debilitating illnesses while still relatively young, while his sister has suffered ill-health since childhood.

Mr Blair's father Leo had a massive stroke at the age of 40 which robbed him of his speech for three years.

The condition, which is caused when a clot either bursts in the brain or blocks an artery, ended the political ambitions of the barrister and law lecturer.

Leo Blair once admitted that he had entered local politics in the hope of becoming Prime Minister.

The experience had a profound effect on the young Tony, then ten, and instilled in him the religious faith which he has adhered to ever since.

Within weeks of Leo Blair beginning to show signs of recovery, Tony's sister Sarah was diagnosed as having infantile rheumatoid arthritis.

The condition, also known as Still's disease, hospitalised her for two years as doctors fought to stabilise her side-effects.

Her health has never fully recovered and she has had hip surgery related to her condition.

Mother died

When the future Prime Minister was 22 and newly graduated from Oxford, his mother, Hazel, died aged 51 of throat cancer.

She had devoted her life to caring for her husband and her three children.

Leo Blair's passion for politics had a profound effect on his son, even though he was a Tory.

The Prime Minister once described him as "a gut Conservative", adding: "I understood where my father was coming from because he was totally self-made, the sort of Tory represented by Norman Tebbit".

Mr Blair's brother Bill, describing how the death of one parent and the illness of another shaped the future Prime Minister, said: "Many people say the ambition of the father was transferred to the son but it is more complicated than that."

Mr Blair senior has survived to see the birth of his latest grandson, who was named after him.

He suffered a second stroke in 1997 and was nursed back to health by his second wife, Olwen. He still suffers from partial paralysis and speech difficulties.

Tired appearance

Until now, the Prime Minister's health has seemed remarkably good for someone who leads such a hectic schedule.

However, concerns were raised about his tired appearance at the height of the diplomatic crisis before the Iraq war. He displayed new wrinkles on his face, sunken eyes and an almost permanently haggard expression.

Downing Street insiders spoke of him getting no more than three hours sleep a night and keeping bottles of pills on his desk to keep him going through his 20-hour working days.

Home Secretary David Blunkett said at the time that he no longer held ambitions to be Prime Minister "having seen what Tony has had to put up with - the strain, the tremendous damage to his health and the enormous toll it has taken".

Mr Blair prides himself on his physical condition. In an interview for his 50th birthday earlier this year, he was described as weighing just under 13st, less than he did a decade ago.

"I feel great, physically. I do more exercise today than I've done since I was at school," he told Saga magazine.

"I pay more attention to looking after myself. I watch my diet a bit. But really I find it's exercise that's fantastically helpful for coping with stress."

Mr Blair confessed that his exercise regime tends to falter during times of higher stress, such as during election campaigns.

"Normally I try to keep as fit as I can, but it's difficult when you're out on the bus all the time," he said.

Asked if his parents' history of illness had made him concerned for his health, Mr Blair once replied: "Yes, I suppose so."

Mr Blair has admitted to being a smoker as a youngster, although he gave up aged 26.

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