Matt Iseman: Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior

Emmy-winning ‘American Ninja Warrior’ host opens up about health, career, and NIH research

Host Matt Iseman on the set of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”

Photo: courtesy of NBC.

Matt Iseman was trained as a doctor, but he is known to many as a comic, first winner of the “New Celebrity Apprentice,” and host of the hit TV show “American Ninja Warrior.” He is also one of millions of Americans living with arthritis and has been an advocate for more research into the condition. He spoke with NIH MedlinePlus magazine to talk about his experience and what drives him to success.

Tell us about your experience with rheumatoid arthritis.

I was diagnosed Christmas of 2002. When I was told I had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the first thought I had was relief. People are always shocked when they hear that. But it had been 18 months that I had been having symptoms—18 months when my body and my life were falling apart.

What was it like at first?

I had just turned 30 and my symptoms started with pain in my right index finger and then spread to my feet, back, and neck. I was always exhausted and often sleeping up to 14 hours a day. I had been an athlete all my life, but couldn’t work out at all and eventually gained 55 pounds. I saw a range of doctors, but no one could tell me what was wrong.

When I was finally told I had RA, I was relieved because I knew there was something I could do about it.

I’m walking proof of the importance of research like that done by NIH.

What’s the good news?

The good news is when I started treatment (with a biologic medicine that helps reduce inflammation), it gave me my life back.

That is why I have been a passionate advocate, working with groups like the Arthritis Foundation to let others know that there is hope. Despite the fact that I am a doctor and understood the disease, I didn’t know anyone who had it. Many who are newly diagnosed go online and see the worst-case scenario.

I want them to see me, someone who won “Celebrity Apprentice,” who hosts “American Ninja Warrior,” and travels the country doing stand-up comedy. I love sharing my story. There is hope. This is a disease you can lead a full life with.

What do you do to keep up your health and energy?

I used to play basketball, but I haven’t played basketball or run since I was diagnosed. I like to tell people that whatever you are dealing with, don’t focus on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do. You will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

I have discovered yoga and pilates. They are terrific for building strength and flexibility. If you are dealing with RA, the saying goes “motion is lotion.” The more you move the better you feel and the better your vitality.

Laughter has always been key for me, particularly when I was down before I was diagnosed. Stand-up comedy really saved my life at that point. No matter how bad I felt, I did stand-up comedy, laughing and making others laugh. Taking care of yourself physically and emotionally is key. And laughter is such a great tool.

What about the importance of having a strong support community?

No one does it alone. We talk about that on “American Ninja Warrior” and I talk about arthritis.

When you are newly diagnosed, your doctor, your nurse, and your family are going to talk to you. But it is also important to talk to someone who is going through or has been through what you are. Join a group to share stories and tips about living with RA.

NIH supports a great deal of research aimed at improving treatments for arthritis. Would you speak to the importance of this research?

I’m it. I’m walking proof of the importance of research like that done by NIH. The medication I’m on was discovered just four years before I was diagnosed.

We would not have advancements like this without the research supported by NIH. We need to make sure that researchers have the funding to develop even better treatments and one day find a cure.

Summer 2018 Issue: Volume 14 Number 2 Page 14-15