When Chris Will started losing weight without trying he knew something was wrong.
“I had a massive weight drop of six kilograms (approximately 13 lb.) in three weeks for no apparent reason. I didn’t have any particular illness I knew about and hadn’t changed anything with my diet. It wasn’t adding up,” said the 6-foot-2 Will, whose weight had dropped from 168 to 155 lb. in 2016.
“My mom’s a nurse so she encouraged me to get a general health checkup,” he added.
Will, now 37, soon discovered he had Type 1 diabetes, which—unlike Type 2 diabetes—can’t be prevented or managed as easily with proper diet and exercise. To control blood-glucose levels, Type 1 diabetics have to inject themselves with insulin each day, sometimes multiple times a day.
Shortly after learning he was a Type 1 diabetic, Will discovered he had coeliac disease as well. Also known as celiac disease, the condition is an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten causes damage to the small intestine.
“My body obviously hadn’t been processing food as it should have been, which is why I had been dropping weight,” said Will, a chartered accountant in Brisbane, Australia.
The bad news about his health left him feeling helpless, he said.
“I remember feeling completely overwhelmed and shattered when first diagnosed. There’s no history of it in my family, and I spent a lot of time wondering what I could have done differently. I was relatively active and ate healthy, didn’t drink or smoke and (couldn’t) compute how I could have such a condition at my age.”
He was tempted to give up and accept that his life would never be the same—that he was destined to be unhealthy, he admitted.
But instead, he decided he would do whatever he could to fight for his health. So he started working out at CrossFit Kanga in Brisbane and learning all he could about healthy eating.
Dion Walmsley, the owner of CrossFit Kanga, took Will under his wing and helped him adopt a diet of healthy proteins, vegetables, some fruits and limited whole grains while eliminating processed foods and sugar. The hardest change for Will was cutting cereal from his diet.
“I used to enjoy trying new and different cereal brands. I ate it all the time,” he said.
Will’s body reacted well to his new diet and training program. In the first month, he gained 13 lb. of muscle. Over the next year and a half, he packed on another 12. Today, Will weighs a healthy 185 lb., 30 lb. more than when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
The weight gain has also contributed to huge strength improvements in the gym. When Will first started at CrossFit Kanga, he didn’t have the strength to do a pull-up. Now he can do strict muscle-ups. He also remembers the day he couldn’t deadlift 130 lb. Recently, he hit 350 lb. for a 10-rep max.
Working out in the early mornings at CrossFit Kanga five days a week has also helped regulate his insulin and blood-sugar levels, he said.
“I have found that exercise first thing in the morning means my insulin sensitivity is really good for the day. I don’t require a lot of insulin compared to people in the same position as me, so my sugar is more stable throughout the day and I’m less likely to have any side effects,” Will said. His doctors have also praised him for how well he manages his condition.
Feeling fit, healthy and strong has helped boost Will’s confidence and change his perspective on living life with Type 1 diabetes.
“I could have easily just decided to withdraw when I was diagnosed, because it’s something I knew I’d have to deal with for the rest of my life. … CrossFit has helped ease some of my fears about being a diabetic by giving me the chance to prove myself on a daily basis. Despite my health issues, I am still capable of functioning just as well as a normal, healthy person,” Will said.
He added: “I might have to work harder away from the box on my diet, lifestyle and medication, but I can still train and compete just as well as anyone else.”
The support he has received from his coaches and friends at CrossFit Kanga has helped him stay positive.
“I am treated just like everyone else, which is exactly what I’m after. … Just being part of the community and exercising with the same people every day, you realize everyone has their own struggles.”
Many people at the gym aren’t aware of Will’s struggle, Walmsley said. When they find out, they’re inspired to take their own fitness to the next level.
“When people realize what’s actually going on, they realize that if their desire to live a normal life is strong enough, there’s no reason (they can’t). Even though Chris is very limited by his diet, he has demonstrated to others at the gym that you can keep working out, and, in fact, you can improve a lot,” Walmsley said.
The biggest key to Will’s improvements has been his consistency, Walmsley added.
“Chris is the king of consistency. I think he approaches his training as he does his disease: He’s very level headed and precise.”
“Having consistent behavior and habits breeds more confidence, and there’s a snowball effect as you realize that things might not be as bad as you originally thought, and you’re still capable of living normally,” Will said.
And what’s normal for someone with a medical condition like Will’s?
“I feel healthy. I have no symptoms. It’s the best I have ever felt in my life,” he said.