The Emmy award-winning actress, dancer and choreographer on why she is an outspoken advocate for kidney health. 

Lauren Lastowka
February 05, 2021
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Credit: Paul Archuleta / Getty Images

Debbie Allen has made a career out of staying active, and it shows. The joyful and bubbly 71-year-old has the energy of someone half her age, even with an overflowing plate: she's an executive producer of Grey's Anatomy, stars as Dr. Catherine Fox on the show, is in the process of opening a new, larger location for the nonprofit Debbie Allen Dance Academy, and continues to produce, direct and choreograph for projects like the recent Netflix documentary Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. Allen is no stranger to being this busy: she has spent the past five decades as an award-winning dancer, actor and choreographer, ever since she first gained attention in 1980 for her role in the movie Fame, and then in the TV show of the same name.

With over five decades of acting and dancing under her belt, Allen has learned a thing or two about her body. "It's very important that everybody moves, that they have some sort of physical activity several times a week," Allen says (here's how much exercise you should be getting every week). She sees movement as a way to check in with her body. "You can find that, oh well, that hurt my hip, or oh, I feel tired after two minutes," she says. Even just going up a flight of stairs can help you check in with yourself. "I go up steps all day every day here at Grey's Anatomy and it's kind of a little challenge for all of us—who can run up the steps and not be so winded?" 

"You have to take time to assess yourself," she says. "That means taking a moment for yourself, which a lot of people don't do—I know that I have to make myself do it. But it's important. You have to know your body and your mental state so that you can tell if there is some change in the dynamic of your physical being on a daily basis." 

For Allen, being this attuned to her body also means staying on top of health risks. Type 2 diabetes runs in her family, and so she has always known she is at risk of developing it. Because of this, she keeps an eye on what she eats, avoiding too much cholesterol and salt, and finds ways to balance foods she enjoys with those that are healthy. (Try these healthy diabetes-friendly recipes.)

"Look, on Super Bowl Sunday, you know I'll be eating fried chicken, but you can't eat that every day. You have to do it in moderation," she says. "I've always been one to love vegetables and salads," she says, adding that she also tends to cook with more olive oil, and avoid most red meat. 

Last summer, Allen was diagnosed with prediabetes, and she didn't skip a beat: "Actually, I have been looking for it all my life, because I know it runs in my family. This past summer when I was diagnosed, I was like, OK, let's really pull out the gloves and get going. It wasn't a surprise, but it's always a call for action."

Allen started by looking for information. She wanted to understand the potential complications of diabetes and to know what tests were available to her. "You have to know that where we're sitting right now, knowledge is power," she says. "When you go to your doctor or health care provider you have to be proactive, you have to say what you want to see, what tests you might want, what you want them to look for."

Learning about the tests available to her was a game-changer, and she realized she wanted to help raise awareness of them for others. "After learning of my diagnosis, I wanted to do my part to help others with clear, actionable steps. Too many people don't know that living with type 2 diabetes can lead to chronic kidney disease and life-threatening complications," says Allen.

This month, Allen has teamed up with the National Kidney Foundation and Bayer for a new phase of the public awareness campaign about chronic kidney disease called "Are You the 33%?" The campaign name refers to the fact that 1 in 3 adults are at risk for developing chronic kidney disease, a risk factor that is higher in those with high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  

"I learned a lot by partnering with this call to action about the risk of kidney disease. There's an alarming number of American people walking around right now with chronic kidney disease and they don't know it. All it takes is a simple urine test or a blood test to understand the condition," says Allen. "This amazing website MinuteforYourKidneys.org is a great place to start," Allen says, of the campaign website that provides a one-minute quiz that can help you assess your risk of kidney disease. And, she says, "The next place is with your caregiver: go get these tests done!" 

One of the reasons Allen is so outspoken about raising awareness is because of her family and her community. "It's very personal for me." she says. "Type 2 diabetes has devastated my family for generations. My father, my grandfather, my uncles, cousins have died of it. I've grown up with a sense of family and community that I carry with me everywhere I go," she says. "So I'm happy to partner and use my celebrity when it brings attention especially to my community, which has been so disenfranchised by the health care system."

In addition to becoming a spokesperson for the campaign, Allen continues to spread her personal mission of dance and movement through social media. Since the start of the pandemic, Allen has been offering a free dance class every Wednesday on Instagram Live at @theRealDebbieAllen, which she encourages everyone to join. "Just find a way to get that little bit of exercise several times a week, you gotta do it. Just get off your butt and move," she says with a smile.