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As a child, Heather Kersey struggled so much with undiagnosed Crohn’s disease that her camp counselors once thought she had an eating disorder. She’s come a long way since the days when she barely ate and had frequent digestive complaints — now she’s found success running half-marathons while also managing her condition.

Kersey, a Baltimore resident and sales representative for M-Edge International, was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teen. Today the 32-year-old takes a biologic medication to manage her condition and carefully monitors her diet to avoid foods that trigger her symptoms.

She's also been actively involved in the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America’s (CCFA) fitness program, Team Challenge, which supports people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) as they train for endurance events.

“I can’t believe I got into running,” Kersey says. She went to a Team Challenge meeting at the urging of a friend and decided to sign up for the free program without having any background in sports. “They said you don’t have to be a runner, that you can walk the whole race," she says. "I just joined and never stopped."

Kersey started by training with other participants in the Maryland area under the tutoring of a coach. Fast-forward to 2017, and she expects to complete her thirteenth race in Washington, D.C. The majority of her races have been with the CCFA, including an international race in Ireland, she says.

Crohn’s Disease and Exercise: Running as a Team

Physical activity can go a long way in boosting other aspects of your life, too. A March 2015 study in the journal Digestion found that when people with IBD ran three times a week for 10-weeks, they reported improvements in their quality of life.

Running alongside others who also have IBD allows Kersey to be with people who share similar concerns, such as how to eat before and after races as well as the availability of water and the location of bathrooms along race routes.

“There’s nothing like having a team of people who know what you’re going through, who are going through the same thing, so you all push together,” Kersey says. After training sessions and races, Team Challenge members congratulate one another and then gather to talk about what worked and what didn’t, often discussing topics that runners who don’t have IBD wouldn’t think about.

Finding a Running Strategy

Kersey's own race prep usually includes eating salmon or chicken the day before, nothing for breakfast on race day, and a peanut butter sandwich immediately afterward. She also tries to empty her bowels as much as possible before running, although training and racing don’t trigger her individual digestive symptoms, she says. However, the activity can aggravate her arthritis symptoms, particularly in her wrists, knees, and ankles.

People with Crohn’s disease find that their bodies respond to exercise in different ways. “There’s limited data regarding the safety of exercise in Crohn's disease and if it may be beneficial or harmful,” says Anita Afzali, MD, MPH, a gastroenterologist and an assistant professor of medicine and director of the Inflammatory Bowel Diseases Program at University of Washington Medicine-Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Some people with Crohn’s disease might find that the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise help control their symptoms, she says, while others could find that their symptoms are aggravated by physical activity.

“Participate in low-intensity exercise for a moderate amount of time, if tolerated, because this can strengthen the immune system and improve overall health and quality of life, including reducing stress and fatigue,” Dr. Afzali suggests.

Research supports this: Regular exercise can help offset fatigue, according to a January 2014 study published in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.

Getting Started With Fitness for Crohn’s Disease

Kersey understands that people with Crohn’s disease may be reluctant to attempt a challenge like a half-marathon, but she suggests giving it a try. “You’d be surprised what you can do,” she says.

If you have Crohn’s disease and are interested in trying a 5K, half-marathon, or other endurance challenge, consider these tips:

  • Take a gradual approach. Work toward your exercise goal slowly, Afzali says. Take a break or scale things back if you experience a flare or worsening symptoms during training.
  • Know your limits. Kersey knows that how hard she can push herself in a run depends a lot on her body’s signals. “If your stomach is really bad, don’t go out, but if you think you can do it, push yourself,” she says. It can take time and training to develop a good sense of how far you can go.
  • Try other fitness activities. If running doesn’t suit your personal style, look for other ways to be physically active and increase the intensity of those activities gradually as well, Afzali says. In addition to running, Kersey has started to enjoy weight-based fitness classes at a nearby gym.

Kersey says her future challenges are less about fitness and more about her relationships. Not only is she engaged to be married in May 2017, but she and her future husband are also working with her physicians to plan for a healthy pregnancy in the coming years.