In 2012, after years of auditions, odd jobs, and steady grinding to make ends meet, Jake Odmark finally got his big break, landing his first role in a Broadway musical. He would play the part of Flash Thompson, Peter Parker’s high school bully, in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.
To get in the kind of shape befitting a superhero, Odmark began working out with trainer Johnny LaHoud, doing a mix of balance, agility, and mobility moves that made his regular workouts look like fifth grade gym class. Instead of simple weights or bands, he says, he toned up through bodyweight work on slide boards, slant boards, exercise balls, battle ropes, TRX, and more. By the time he stepped on stage, Odmark was in the best shape of his life.
But nothing could prepare him for the life-changing diagnosis he received eight months after his debut. He first became alarmed by the appearance of blood in his stool. He scheduled a doctor’s appointment, and when he woke up from the anesthesia, learned he had Crohn’s Disease. “In about five days I went from zero symptoms to being diagnosed and taking a daily dose of a pretty powerful drug,” Odmark recalls.
A false sense of security
When the symptoms went away a week or so later, he assumed he’d beaten the disease. Even when they returned “with a vengeance” four months later, he figured he’d simply refill his prescription for the anti-inflammatory he’d taken before and be fine. He was anything but.
He waited too long to resume treatment, and when he finally did, his inflammation had quadrupled. Worse, the drug that had worked so well before was no longer effective. Odmark didn’t know it at the time, but this would mark the beginning of a flare-up that would last almost five years.
He tried every course of treatment imaginable: double doses of another anti-inflammatory, 18 months of steroids, twice-daily enemas, suppositories, iron infusions, a blood transfusion. He saw allergists and nutritionists, tried various elimination diets and acupuncture; he even learned how to make his own probiotic yogurt at home. But nothing worked.
As a Broadway actor, “my job is dependent on looking and feeling healthy–and I was neither,” says Odmark. Producers and directors would often get concerned to see him so unwell. “I was embarrassed. I was depressed. I was in constant discomfort and pain.”
Finding a path forward
Before Crohn’s, Odmark had worked out six days a week. Now there were long stretches–one lasted 18 months–when he didn’t work out at all. He couldn’t make it to the top of a flight of stairs without feeling lightheaded and winded.
“The physical challenges of being a Broadway actor are often underestimated,” says Odmark. “Some of the best cardiovascular workouts I’ve ever had are performing big musical numbers in a Broadway show. Doing this while battling Crohn’s–I was barely keeping up.”
In 2016, with his Crohn’s symptoms still wreaking havoc, Odmark set out to beat the disease by getting back in shape. He called his old friend LaHoud.
“I told him I was tired of being sick and uncomfortable and I figured getting in the best shape of my life might help me beat the disease,” Odmark says.
LaHoud prescribed a grueling 15-week program designed to build as much muscle as possible for the first 11 weeks, before cutting as much fat as possible in the last four. Odmark worked his legs twice a week, upper body four times a week, abs three times a week, and did a mix of stretching and cardio once a week.
It worked. He’s been in remission since early 2018, and has continued his Crohn’s journey by starting a course of a biologic drug in addition to a strong self-care regimen. A combination of reading, therapy, and spiritual introspection helped Odmark eliminate feelings of stress, helplessness, and depression, which has allowed his body to continue to respond positively.
“I don’t know if I would have been determined to push myself as hard as I did unless I knew what I had to lose,” he says. “Crohn’s Disease makes you feel weak. It makes you feel fragile and brittle. I didn’t want to feel that way. I wanted to take control of my body and my fitness and prove that I couldn’t be kept down.”