For someone living with Crohn's or colitis, it may seem as if exercise is a bad idea. All of that movement can activate symptoms, right? What happens if the symptoms occur during exercise, such as diarrhea? Would it not be safer to avoid the risk and minimize movement?
Actually, exercise has beneficial effects for people with Crohn’s disease or colitis. In fact, a consistent exercise regime can strengthen the body against Crohn’s. Sure, there are a few things to be on the lookout against compared to people without this disease, but overall, the benefits outweigh the risks.
Compared to people who are sedentary, exercise has a beneficial impact on people who work out consistently. Our bodies were meant to move, and moving triggers body processes that lay dormant when you are dormant. Even walking can aid digestion, release endorphins, and promote a healthy body composition, i.e. reduce fat and promote muscle growth.
For most people, moderate activity has a myriad of small benefits which add up to improve quality of life. For people with Crohn’s disease and colitis, these benefits are all the more important to help fight negative effects of the disease. Specific benefits will be described below.
Emotional State – Exercise leads to the production of endorphins, improving the mood of people who work out. Also, the generic positive effects of exercise can lead to one feeling better about themselves. This improves their self-image, and may even improve their ability to socialize.
Digestive Tract – While high intensity exercise can induce problems in the digestive tract, moderate-intensity exercise may actually have protective properties. Moderate exercise can help your gut work more efficiently, so long as you do not push yourself too hard.
Inflammation – Regular exercise can make your body more efficient at dealing with inflammation. It can also cause your body to produce anti-inflammatory substances, relaxing your immune system, which does not work properly with Crohn’s. The less inflamed you are, the less likely you are to have a flare-up of your symptoms.
Stress – Stress puts your whole body on alert, and if you have Crohn’s, this can lead to a flare-up of your symptoms. While exercise is itself a physical stressor, exercise leads to a reduction of psychological stress. As psychological stress can influence gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn’s, that reduction can help people with the disease.
Osteoporosis – People with Crohn’s disease are at a greater risk of osteoporosis. This comes from two directions. Crohn’s disease itself increases the risk, and some of the medications given for Crohn’s also increase the risk of osteoporosis.
Exercise fights this danger in several ways. Working out places light stress on the bones, not enough to damage them but enough to encourage bone growth. Over the years this can lead to a reduction in the rate of bone loss and can even counter the loss completely for some time.
The two other methods by which exercise protects against osteoporosis is by developing your sense of balance and increasing muscular strength. With a better sense of balance, you are less likely to fall or have another accident which can break your bones. Stronger muscles and tendons help to protect your bones if you do happen to have such an accident.
Sleep – People who have Crohn’s disease tend to have more sleep problems than people without the disease. Exercise has a tendency to improve the quality of sleep for people who consistently work out.
Healing – Exercise triggers healing in your body. If you need to heal from something already, moderate exercise encourages your body to heal more quickly. This can help you recover from symptoms faster and is just generally helpful.
Now, if you are a person with Crohn’s disease or colitis, there are some dangers which come from exercise. Mostly they are the same dangers which everyone has to watch out for, but the Crohn’s makes you more susceptible.
It is recommended to not push yourself to your limits. Sometimes certain exercises call for pushing yourself to failure. This is good for some, but not for people with Crohn’s or colitis, especially if abdominal muscles are involved. Pushing yourself then can lead to a flare-up of Crohn’s disease.
In case you do push yourself too hard or have a flare-up for another reason, it is wise to be prepared. Have an exit strategy; know where the nearest restroom is located and how to get there quickly. It might also be a good idea to carry some toilet paper or wipes in your pocket. Accidents happen.
Listen to your body. While it is generally recommended to establish a routine and stick to it, if you have Crohn’s disease, your body may veto your exercise plans for the day. It is wiser to put off a day just in case of symptoms rather than try to power through and pay the price. Just be careful to not use this as an excuse, either.
Pay attention to your body during exercise, as well. Pause and focus on your body every now and then. If you find yourself starting to feel worse than normal, either tone down the exercise (such as walking instead of running) or call off the exercise entirely.
Be sure to hydrate. People with Crohn’s disease are at a greater risk of dehydration than most people, and it is easy to dehydrate yourself while exercising. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after the exercise, though be sure not to drink so much during the exercise that you make yourself sick to your stomach.
Walking is one of the best things for a person to do, regardless of whether or not they have Crohn’s disease. Generally, a person with Crohn’s disease can walk an average distance of 3.5 kilometers, or 2.1 miles, before triggering a flare up.
You do not have to walk even that long for the benefits to begin. Start with twenty to thirty minutes of walking every other day, and expand from there. If you have trouble walking for that long at once, split the walks into five minutes each, aiming for a combined minimum of twenty minutes per day.
Running is another popular form of anaerobic exercise. It is not as good as walking for people with Crohn’s disease because it is more dehydrating, more likely to induce symptoms, and tends to take you further from an emergency restroom. By being cautious it can work as well. Use this advice for bicycling too.
It may be a good idea to run or bicycle on an indoor track or using a treadmill/stationary bicycle. It is not as exciting as enjoying the great outdoors, but far easier to perform with caution.
Swimming has less of an impact on your joints than running and is often recommended as an alternative. It may be a good choice for you as well, though it may be more difficult to enact your exit strategy if you need to make a sudden run to the restroom.
Anaerobic exercise, muscular resistance training, is even more beneficial than aerobic exercise when it comes to most of the benefits you can enjoy. For example, while aerobic exercise burns calories during the exercise, anaerobic exercise triggers your body to increase your basal metabolic rate for the rest of the day.
Free weights are perhaps the most effective but require the most skill and training. Weight machines can also be effective. They are easier to use, but do not work out stabilizer muscles nearly as much and tend to be more limited in their utility. Resistance bands can be used at home and are cheap at the store. They are not as effective as the other two options, but are easier, and are a good choice for people who are just starting out.
It is highly recommended to seek professional instruction on the use of free weights and weight machines. Elastic bands typically come with instructions.
As someone with Crohn’s disease, you will want to change most example workouts. Rest for longer between sets, and perform fewer sets in a day. This is important to prevent you from pushing yourself too hard and causing a flare-up.
If you seek out a personal trainer, make sure they understand your condition and the limitations it places on your ability to exercise. Now is not the time to hire someone who will push you to your limit and past.
Overall, physical exercise—whether aerobic or anaerobic—will have a beneficial effect on your Crohn’s disease or colitis. That is, if you listen to your body and do not push yourself too hard. But if you exercise intelligently, you may find your symptoms occurring less often or with less intensity.