5 Fixes for Exercising With Ulcerative Colitis

by Erin L. Boyle Health Writer

Having ulcerative colitis (UC) is challenging enough — so how do you exercise when flares keep you close to the bathroom or make you feel exhausted?

It can be done — with “moderation and flexibility,” says Abby Bales, a UC patient with a doctorate in physical therapy (PT), specializing in pelvic health. She recommends that you don’t get hung up on your exercise plan because your body might not cooperate, and that’s OK.

“Do what you can and be consistent with your effort,” Dr. Bales says.

Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of exercise with UC and how to address common workout anxieties.

Strong happy group of young people at gym.

The Benefits of Exercise With UC

Why should you work out with UC? Because exercise can help inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Dr. Bales says. It reduces stress, builds muscle mass, and puts you back in control of your health: “As a patient with chronic illness, I often felt powerless as to what my body was doing and how I could help myself,” she says. “With a regular exercise routine and goals, each workout has purpose and gave me the confidence I needed to take on my disease.”

So what can you do when UC interferes with exercise?

Women on treadmill.

The UC Issue: You feel that urgent need to go while you’re on the treadmill

You’re 10 minutes into walking on the treadmill and you feel that familiar pang in your gut. You need a bathroom, and fast. But you also need to consistently exercise, and jumping off the treadmill to head for the gym restroom doesn’t seem to support that.

What do you do?

The fix: Use HIIT to your advantage

You go, Dr. Bales says.

“Get off, go to the bathroom, get back on. You’ll be great at intervals.”

And getting great at high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to protect cells from aging, create new muscle growth, and help you stick to your exercising goals, according to the Mayo Clinic.

So getting off and back on the treadmill because of UC can actually be useful to your exercise routine. Who knew?

The UC Issue: You're at a yoga class and you have an accident

Deep into downward-facing dog at yoga, you feel something uncomfortable and familiar. You’ve had an accident. What now?

man packing gym bag

The Fix: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst with UC

Travel with extra clothes and a plastic bag when taking classes, Dr. Bales recommends.

“Set up near the door and communicate with the instructor prior to class that you may need to leave because of a medical condition,” she says.

Accidents happen. Just understand that everyone has experiences like these when they have a chronic illness like UC. You’re not alone (though it might feel isolating in the moment).

“Change your clothes, and get back on the mat if you’re feeling up to it,” Dr. Bales says.

Worried woman.

The UC Issue: You want to go to the gym but have chronic diarrhea

You want to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but you’re in the middle of a flare with chronic diarrhea. Is exercise even possible?

Fitness group training on cycling machines

The Fix: Know your best options for working out with UC

Knowing your best exercising options to minimize issues can make the difference with diarrhea. At Dr. Bales’ sickest, she would run on the treadmill closest to the door, or do a spin class because she’s less symptomatic on a bike. What exercise equipment feels best for you? Use that, she recommends. Strength training and other workouts with less impact may work. Also, visit the gym at the times when you’re most likely to be in control of your bowels, she says.

The UC Issue: You're too fatigued to exercise

You’re so tired, you can barely get through the day. So how do you add in exercise when UC is exhausting you?

The Fix: Rest when you need to

Don’t push yourself — while yes, exercise is important, taking care of yourself is too. “Chronic illness is a marathon, not a sprint,” Dr. Bales says. Some days, you can only walk around the block: “and that’s OK.”

“Recognize when you’re feeling better and take advantage of those days for a little more challenge to your activity,” she says.

woman standing on scale

The UC Issue: You need to put weight on — not lose it

Excessive weight loss from UC making weight gain a real issue for you? It can be tough to know how to exercise to build up body mass instead of losing it — which is what many think of as the main goal of exercise. But it’s doable — very doable. But how?

The Fix: Exercise helps you gain weight gain with UC

Strength training. It can help increase your appetite. Dr. Bales elaborates: “Lifting weights and adding muscle as well as working with a registered dietitian to maximize your caloric intake with nutritiously beneficial foods is a safe and effective way to improve your body mass index at any stage.”

Man drinking water.

Here's What to Remember When Exercising With UC

Don’t forget to hydrate. Drinking water is important for everyone, but especially when you’re dealing with the dehydrating symptoms of UC. Don’t forget to consult your doctor before starting any exercise regime. And finally, don’t forget to be easy on yourself.

“Be patient with your body,” Dr. Bales says. “Be kind to your body. Consistency is key. Rest when you need it. It will help in the long run. Don’t limit what you can do, and try new things.”

Erin L. Boyle
Meet Our Writer
Erin L. Boyle

Erin L. Boyle, the senior editor at HealthCentral from 2016-2018, is an award-winning freelance medical writer and editor with more than 15 years’ experience. She’s traveled the world for a decade to bring the latest in medical research to doctors. Health writing is also personal for her: she has several autoimmune diseases and migraines with aura, which she writes about for HealthCentral. Learn more about her at erinlynnboyle.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinLBoyle.