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This article is from the WebMD Feature Archive

Exercising when you have a gastrointestinal disorder

Exercise tips for people with Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or other gastrointestinal disorders.
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

Staying physically fit is a constant struggle for Stephanie Horgan, who, like millions of people with gastrointestinal disorders, has to plan her diet, her exercise routines, and her entire life around her condition.

"I'm really active now, doing kickboxing, jogging, [cycling] at the gym, and eating whatever I want", says the 26-year-old. Horgan was diagnosed with Crohn's disease at the age of 18 and had three operations within a year. "But you never know when you're going to have a flare-up, and when you have a flare, everything revolves around going to the toilet and taking care of your body. Most social situations are out of the question".

Crohn's is one of two major types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The other is ulcerative colitis (UC). Both cause abdominal pain, diarrhoea, weight loss, lack of energy, and sudden urges to go to the toilet that can lead to incontinence when sufferers sneeze, cough, laugh, or lift heavy objects.

Most doctors who treat problems that cause incontinence say many people are reluctant to work out in case the exercise provokes incontinence. However, patients are urged to try to exercise because this can help to get their symptoms under control, and avoid diarrhoea.

Some of IBD's symptoms, pain, bloating, cramping, and diarrhoea, are also common in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is an entirely different condition. Exercise, too, can pose specific challenges for people with IBD or IBS, but the positives of getting in shape typically outweigh the negatives.

People with gastrointestinal disorders like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and IBS need to exercise as much as they can because it can help them maintain a more normal body weight and aid digestion.

Exercise tips

Despite the benefits, people with gastrointestinal disorders do face some obstacles when it comes to getting, and staying, in shape. Here are seven tips for making exercising easier when you have a gastrointestinal disorder:

  1. Minimise impact. Low-impact activities that aren't going to require a great deal of jarring. Try yoga, tai chi, Pilates: exercises with a movement component but a focus on rhythmic breathing. Exercising strengthens the pelvic floor muscles in both men and women and makes exercising safer".
  2. Go uphill. On treadmills, people with incontinence should walk rather than run and increase the track's elevation.
  3. Map out the toilets. Whether you're in the gym or walking in the park, find out where the toilets are before beginning your workouts.
  4. Plan toilet breaks. Use common sense by going to the toilet before you start exercising.
  5. Choose your sports wisely. Golf is a lot safer than rugby or jogging.
  6. Listen to your body. "I'm single and dating and feel fortunate to be in remission so that it doesn't interfere with my life", says Horgan, who is working on her master's degree in social work. But when she feels a flare coming on, she doesn't push herself physically.
  7. Keep your doctor informed. Don't be shy about talking to your doctor about what happens when you exercise. Additionally, if you are fatigued, unable to eat, or having persistent diarrhoea or bleeding, see your doctor.

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