9 Best Tips for Exercising With Ulcerative Colitis

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Hitting the gym can be a chore when you’ve got zero health issues. Add in the fatigue and constipation of UC, and working out can be downright painful. But it’s also important: In a 2014 study, doctors found that regular exercise provides numerous health benefits for people with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like ulcerative colitis.

In fact, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, exercise has been shown to boost the immune systems of people with UC and decrease inflammation. And since people with IBD are at an increased risk of mental health problems like depression and anxiety, the mood-boosting and stress-busting effects of exercise are that much more important. (To wit: A 2013 study found that stress may increase your risk of UC relapse, so keeping it in check is a top priority.)

But what kinds of exercise won’t send you running to the bathroom mid-workout? How can you get a move on without feeling like, dare we say, crap? As someone with UC myself, I’ve learned how to stay fit without inflaming my condition. Read on for my tips as well as advice from top experts.


Skip high-intensity workouts during flares

Before you strap on running shoes and hit the trails, know that rigorous and intense exercise isn’t the best choice when you have bad UC symptoms, according to that 2014 study, which was published in BioMed Research International. That’s because it can cause an inflammatory response in the body (on top of the inflammation those with UC already experience).

“Strenuous exercise should be avoided during flares,” gastroenterologist Michael Chiorean, M.D., director of the IBD Center of Excellence at Virginia Mason, tells HealthCentral.

Instead, focus on steady, regular exercise — which is linked to anti-inflammation and key for people with IBD. While there aren’t recent, specific rules on how much exercise people with IBD should get, it’s OK to follow general exercise guidelines for people your age, says Dr. Chiorean. For healthy adults, for example, get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) per week — that can be spread out throughout the week however you like.

Keep reading for some lower-impact options to try with UC.


Talk to a friend while walking

Heavy cardio workouts can be too taxing on our guts, sending us straight to the bathroom, but, like we said, walking is a great low-impact option. In fact, that same 2014 study found that walking improved quality of life and stress levels for people with UC.

One easy way to motivate? Grab a friend and chat as you go. Being able to still talk while you’re moving shows you’re in the right intensity zone. Walking with a buddy also makes the time fly, and I often end up walking longer than I normally would because I don’t want the conversation to end.


Use yoga to de-stress and banish constipation

Yoga takes you through slow movements to help build muscle strength, and it’s another low-impact exercise that’s been shown to increase reduce stress in people with IBD.

Kelly, a UC Instagrammer, is an active yogi who values the practice for its mental and physical health perks. "During sickness and times of healing, I find comfort in restorative and meditative practices,” she says. “When I'm healthy, I get to mix it up with vigorous heated vinyasa flows."

Another bonus? If you’ve got constipation, a common UC symptom, yoga can help. Try these yoga poses to ease constipation from certified yoga instructor Melissa West.


Ease joint pain with Pilates

The most typical symptom of IBD unrelated to your gut? Joint pain. Which, as anyone can imagine, can make fitness tricky. But Pilates is an option, because most classes focus on lengthening, strengthening, and breath control, and you can modify movements (by not going as “deep” into a position) so they don’t bother your tender joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation, Pilates can help you become stronger and more flexible and increase your body control and endurance.


Hit the barre to increase muscle mass

Muscle-building exercises are helpful when you have IBD because many of us struggle with low muscle mass, due to the disease or medication side effects. But you don’t want to be lifting super-heavy. That’s where Barre classes come in. Classes usually start with a warm-up where you use very light weight, along with your body weight, to work your upper body muscles. Then you move on to your abs, legs, and butt to tone those muscles as well.


Communicate with your instructor

If you’re doing a workout class—no matter what type of exercise—don’t be afraid to show up early and chat with your instructor. You never have to tell someone you have UC unless you feel comfortable doing so, but it’s always good to let your instructor know your abilities and your limits — even if that’s as simple as saying, “Hey, just so you’re aware, I have a digestive condition that makes certain movements more difficult for me.” They can provide some modifications to certain exercises and give you additional instruction during a class.

If you’re not even sure where to begin with a workout regimen, consider partnering with a personal trainer who can personalize your routine to your needs. Ask your local gym if they have any trainers on staff who have experience working with clients who have chronic illness.


Consider certain sports

"Slow" sports provide a way for you to connect with others. Think: golf and bowling, which don’t require a ton of exertion. Or, if you’re up for it, softball is also a fun choice, because it’s not the kind of thing where you typically overdo it. Join a local league, or reach out to your friends and plan a day at the golf course!


Try online workout programs

For many of us with UC, increased fatigue can make mustering the energy to go to a workout class feel impossible sometimes. Other times, you may prefer to work out at home simply so you can stay close to your own bathroom. I've used online programs like Studio Tone It Up and BeachBody PiYo, which offer a variety of videos with different types of exercises — and for varying levels. For Pilates, I highly recommend Pop Pilates for their fun, mood-lifting workouts.

Even if space is an issue, most of these workouts don't require more room than your yoga mat. As someone living with UC, I often prefer to work out at home, on my own time, and if things get too challenging, I can slow my pace or stop altogether.


Find your personal rhythm

Working out with UC is going to be a different experience for everyone. You're going to have to try a variety of programs to find something that sticks, and you’ll get the best results when you customize your exercise experience to your goals and capabilities.