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10 tips for exercising with a gastrointestinal disorder

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

"I know how tough it can be," says Norwich City football captain Russell Martin. "I was running in from training at times to sit on the toilet and the other players wouldn't have a clue where I was going or when I'd be back out!"

Russell has ulcerative colitis (UC), which is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Fellow footballer Darren Fletcher, rower and five times Olympic gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave and former England rugby captain Lewis Moody all have IBD and compete or have competed at the top level despite it.

Even if you're not an elite sports star, taking exercise if you have a gastrointestinal disorder can sometimes be challenging. But there's plenty of evidence to suggest you shouldn't give it up as exercise can actually help.

Inflammatory bowel disease

Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are the two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Ulcerative colitis can cause ulceration and inflammation in the colon, whereas Crohn’s disease can cause ulceration and inflammation in any part of the digestive system. Symptoms include diarrhoea (often with blood), severe pain, extreme tiredness and weight loss. At least 300,000 people in the UK have one of these conditions - that is about 1 in 200 people. IBD is a lifelong chronic condition.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has a range of symptoms. It can cause diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, abdominal spasms and nausea. It often manifests itself in an urgent need to go to the toilet, so can make physical activity awkward. The IBS network estimates it affects a third of the population at some time, and 1 in 10 people have symptoms so severe they go to see their GP.


Gastrointestinal reflux happens when stomach acid washes back up into your oesophagus, which causes heartburn and a taste of acid in the back of the mouth. It may be accompanied by nausea. Symptoms may get worse with exercise.

1. Fitness can help

Being physically active is good for our physical and mental health on a number of levels, but it may also help with gastrointestinal conditions in general.

"If you are unfit, the severity of your symptoms and response to treatment is impaired, so exercise is good from that point of view," says Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist and medical director of the digestive disorders foundation CORE.

"It is actually helpful to take some sort of regular physical exercise if you can, since this can help maintain your muscle and bone condition," adds Andie Hill from Crohn's and Colitis UK.

2. Good for mental health

Exercise cuts stress which may worsen conditions like IBS.

"In general it's good to keep active, as exercise is a form of mindfulness, it takes you out of yourself and relaxes you which may help alleviate symptoms," says Dr Nick Read, chair of the IBS network.

"I have to exercise, not only for my profession but to feel good about myself, I've always been that way," says Russell. "I like to push myself so I would say it certainly helps my UC. The exercise and diet all help me stay fit and healthy and help me maintain a positive outlook on things which is equally as important as feeling good physically."

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