Lifting Over Lupus. What You Know?

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By Hilary Achauer

“Lifestyle changes won’t make a difference.”

When Shannon Longfield was diagnosed with lupus two years ago, her doctor told her diet and exercise wouldn’t improve her symptoms.

Longfield, now 44, had been suffering from joint pain so severe she could barely walk. She was offered a disabled placard for her car and prescribed a handful of medications.

So Longfield switched doctors, and the next one told her diet and exercise might help, but she’d be on medication forever. She started taking prednisone, Plaquenil, methotrexate, cevimeline and a large dose of folic acid to help with the side effects of methotrexate. The medicine helped her move around a bit more, but she still suffered from joint pain and fatigue. She needed a nap most days. The medicines had side effects such as hair loss, blurry vision, sun sensitivity, bloating and nausea.

In 2014, Longfield weighed 285 lb. but lost 70 lb. following a Paleo diet. When she was diagnosed with lupus in 2015, she began drinking soda and eating processed and fast food. At one point, she put on 35 lb. in three months. By early 2017, the 5-foot-5 Longfield weighed 270 lb.

Sick and exhausted, Longfield entered a CrossFit gym in February 2017.

“Do You Think I Could Do CrossFit?”

ALT TEXTShannon Longfield lost weight through healthy eating in 2014, but poor nutrition after a 2015 lupus diagnosis brought most of the weight back. (Courtesy of Shannon Longfield)

It wasn’t Longfield’s idea to visit Hellroaring CrossFit in Columbia Falls, Montana.

Her husband was interested in starting CrossFit, and they were out running errands when he suggested they stop by to learn more.

Longfield said she took one look at the people doing muscle-ups and thought, “I’m like 120 pounds overweight and I can hardly move and there is no way I can do CrossFit. I absolutely am not going to do this.”

Then her husband started talking to the owner, Gabe Murphy. Murphy was so welcoming and encouraging that Longfield began listening.

They left, and Longfield kept thinking about what she’d seen and heard. A week later, she called and asked the question she’d been turning over in her mind.

“Do you think I could do CrossFit?” she asked Murphy. “I mean, I see that it’s for super-fit people. So do you think I can even do it?”

He told her people of any ability can do CrossFit.

“We can make it work for you,” he said, “and you can come in and try it, and if you think it would work, then great, we will sign you up. And if not, no harm.”

Recognizing Longfield’s hesitation, Murphy offered her a free one-on-one session before she started the on-ramp classes.

“When joining our gym, each new athlete must meet with me so that we can get to know each other,” Murphy explained.

He said he thinks Longfield’s trust in him and in CrossFit developed because he listened to her concerns and discussed the group on-ramp classes.

More Energy, Less Pain

ALT TEXTAt Hellroaring CrossFit, Longfield connected with owner Gabe Murphy, who assured her the program could be modified to suit her. (Courtesy of Shannon Longfield)

Longfield’s doctor had told her gentle exercise was best for people with lupus, but she wanted to try CrossFit. Her first workout was really hard, she said, but not impossible. After three workouts she was hooked.

“The funny thing was my husband was kind of like not sold on it right away,” she said. “He was like, ‘I don’t know if I really like it.’”

He didn’t love the weightlifting—her favorite part.

Longfield and her husband knew they needed to improve their diet, so they took the advice of the coaches at Hellroaring CrossFit and got rid of soda, gluten and packaged, processed foods. Longfield started tracking her calorie intake.

She began seeing changes right away.

“One of the big symptoms of lupus is fatigue. And so that has really leveled off even though my class of choice is 5:15 a.m.,” she said.

“I have all this crazy energy. That part was astounding. I went from needing a nap in the middle of the day to getting up at 4:30 in the morning, and (I can) still go all day,” she said.

Longfield began cutting back her medication right away. She first reduced the prednisone—which she was taking for joint pain—because of the side effects. Prednisone made her emotional, constantly hungry and bloated.

She felt great—even off prednisone—and as her weight dropped quickly, her joint pain began to improve.

“As my joints got to feeling better, I needed less and less of a dose,” she said.

After dropping prednisone, Longfield scaled back her other medications, mostly anti-inflammatory drugs commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Longfield went in for a checkup a few months after starting CrossFit. Her blood work looked good, so her doctor told her she could continue decreasing the dosage if she wanted. After that visit Longfield cut her Plaquenil dose in half.

Meanwhile, she was seeing improvements in her CrossFit performance. When she started, she couldn’t lift the 11-lb. training bar overhead. Two months later, she could do Grace (30 clean and jerks for time) with 53 lb.

Longfield’s very first CrossFit workout included a 100-m row, which she could barely finish.

“It seemed horrible,” she said, “but now I pretty regularly churn out 1,000 meters without any trouble.”

ALT TEXTLongfield on Feb. 19, 2017—her first day of CrossFit.

ALT TEXTLongfield after almost a year of CrossFit. (Both: Courtesy of Shannon Longfield)

Medication-Free

At Longfield’s next checkup in August, she was still taking two of her medications, methotrexate and Plaquenil. She asked if she could go off methotrexate because it was making her hair fall out.

Longfield told the doctor she didn’t have any active lupus symptoms, but the doctor told her to stay on methotrexate and gave her another medication to take care of the hair loss. After going home and thinking about it, Longfield decided she would wean herself off methotrexate.

“So I did that and I felt great without it,” she said.

That meant Longfield had one medication left—Plaquenil, the one her doctor said she would need to take forever.

“And that one, one of the side effects, interestingly, is that you are more prone to tendonitis,” she said. Longfield had already pulled one of her Achilles tendons, and just as it was starting to get better she pulled the other one.

CrossFit had become too important to Longfield to stop. She was feeling great—no joint pain and full of energy.

“And so I decided I was going to go off the med altogether (for joint pain), and if I felt awful then I could always go back on. And I went off and I didn’t notice any difference whatsoever,” she said.

Lifestyle Changes

ALT TEXTFrom Instagram: “Some of the best gainz aren’t in the gym! The left was my medication in Jan and on the right today!” (Courtesy of Shannon Longfield)

On Sept. 29, Longfield posted two side-by-side photos on Instagram (406chickgetsfit): a palm full of eight pills on the left and an empty palm on the right.

“Some of the best gainz aren’t in the gym!” she wrote, “The left was my medication in Jan and on the right today!”

She’s lost 85 lb. since February, and she has no lupus symptoms at the moment.

Her husband made his peace with weightlifting and stuck with CrossFit, and two of their four children joined as well. Now that she’s feeling healthy, Longfield has a list of goals for 2018. She’d like to lose about 40 more pounds, she’s training for a half marathon, and she wants to run a Spartan race with her husband.

A year ago Longfield could barely walk and needed a nap every day. Now she’s lifting weights and doing burpees at 5:15 a.m. Her lupus symptoms could flare up, and she’s prepared to take medication if needed, but in her case, exercise, nutrition and weight loss brought improvements the medications didn’t.

Now Longfield looks just like the people she saw that first day in the gym. To an outsider, she’s a fit woman doing the impossible. In reality, she’s a woman who was sick, exhausted and overweight but found the courage to walk into a CrossFit gym and change her life for the better.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and does not constitute medical or other professional advice.

About the Author: Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary writes for the CrossFit Journal. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com.

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