When Lindsay Sloane came home from her junior year in college, she had unexpectedly lost 10 pounds. By August, and the time she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease that attacks the intestines, Lindsay had lost an additional 30 pounds and was experiencing such severe joint pain that she could barely walk from the car into her home. She was going to the bathroom more than 30 times a day.
“I was frail and weak. I debated taking a year off from college. Because I was in pain all the time, literally doubled over, I had to stop exercising completely. I was afraid to do it,” she said.
As a lifelong athlete (she played competitive volleyball, basketball, tennis and softball where she was a pitcher) she had never considered being inactive. But the disease kept her sedentary, and for 10 years she did not work out. Her life was spent with doctors treating her condition and trying to find the right cocktail of medications that would work on her disease specifically. This was not the life she envisioned as a 20-something TV executive living in Los Angeles.
Strength Training Was the Turning Point
Her life started turning around when she began strength training to get in shape for her sister’s upcoming wedding. In all her years as an athlete, she had never worked out with a trainer before. Lindsay embarked on a diet and workout regimen that has kept her Crohn’s disease in check and given her a new lease on life.
A major benefit of strength training is the support a strengthened musculature provides to joints. One of the side symptoms of Crohn’s is rheumatoid arthritis joint pain, Lindsay explained. “You might think it’s counterproductive, that maybe strength training would cause more joint pain, but instead, strong muscles support the joints.”
One of the most impressive outcomes of her training regimen has been her ability to avoid a life of constant medication, a risk she was willing to take because she had so much faith that her workouts were improving her health. Her last medication was Humira, a drug she would inject into her stomach. On this medication, her disease was finally in remission and she “felt great.” Then she asked her doctor the multi-million-dollar question, “What’s the plan to get off the drug?” By this point, Lindsay had been on medications for 20 years straight, the idea of continuing on that path forever felt “horrible,” she said. There was no plan.
An Unlikely Change Her in Crohn’s Medication
Her doctor told her if she had two perfect colonoscopies separated by a year, she could go off the meds. What were the chances of that happening? “Slim to none,” he told her flat out. Not only did he advise against going off the medication because she would have only a 50/50 chance of staying in remission, but said she could never go back on Humira later as her body would have built up antibodies. If the disease didn’t stay in remission, she would have to begin a different drug where she would receive IV medications for two hours every six weeks in a doctor’s office. And even then, it might not work.
At this point she said she decided to “take the chance” and double down with her own health regimen. She “made real changes in her life,” giving up caffeine, processed foods, alcohol and sugar. And she said, “I amped up my workouts to five times a week.” She thought, “At least this way I have a chance to stay medicine-free, so I’m doing everything I can in my power to do so.”
Lindsay got her two perfect colonoscopies. This summer it will be almost two years since she’s been off all medication.
There is preliminary research that shows a correlation between exercise and inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s. Current research recommends exercise as a way to increase bone mineral density and the immunological response, as well as stress management and psychological health. (Of course, consult your physician before stopping any medications, to make sure you are able to exercise, and for supervised treatment.)
Strong Body, Strong Mind
Lindsay said that the strength training has really helped her psychologically. “When you go through 20 years of being a ‘sick person’ and then you feel healthy working out, it gives you your power back over your own health. Now I’m in control of my health, instead of feeling helpless.”
Lindsay added, “Feeling good and taking care of your body so that it’s strong and it supports you helps with the mental part of overcoming an illness.” She looks forward to her workouts with her trainer Nancy Greco at Studio City Fitness, who “always makes it fun, and helped me get strong without bulking up.”
Many people with Crohn’s suffer a life of illness, as Crohn’s is an auto-immune disease that ulcerates the intestines. If there is a lot of internal bleeding, it can result in scar tissue in the intestines. The more scare tissue, the smaller the pathway. People with Crohn’s may have surgery to remove part of the intestine or live with a colostomy bag, or both.
Lindsay is excited about her upcoming colonoscopy this summer and her future prospects. “I want to do everything I can to be healthy, and strength training will always be part of my health routine,” adding the opposite of what many people say about their workouts. “I want my insides to reflect my outside.”
Strength training helped kick the meds for Lindsay. But, this strength training success story is not to be considered medical advice. Speak to your doctor before altering your exercise routine and your medications.