Move More, Stress Less When You Have Crohn’s

Moderate exercise can help people living with Crohn's disease reduce their stress, deal with depression, and even ward off osteoporosis.

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Regular exercise can help relieve Crohn's symptoms.Getty Images

Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for anyone. Fitness combats stress, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and floods your brain with joy-inducing endorphins. For people living with a chronic illness like Crohn's disease, exercise may not always come easy. Still, it’s an important part of coping with the disease. Routine physical activity can actually help people with Crohn’s manage their symptoms more effectively, says Samantha Heller, RD, a nutritionist and exercise physiologist based in New York City.

Numerous studies have shown the positive effect moderate exercise can have on people who live with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). One study, published in August 2019 in the journal BMC Pediatrics, found that eight weeks of consistent exercise led to a decrease in these inflammation markers. Like Heller, the study authors concluded that exercise is a viable way people with IBD can manage and even reduce their symptoms.

Managing symptoms isn’t the only benefit of exercising when you have Crohn’s. Research shows it can help with things like:

  • Stress relief While stress doesn’t cause Crohn’s disease, it can — and often does — make symptoms worse. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation recommends doing light aerobic exercise like walking or swimming, as well as yoga or tai chi to reduce stress.
  • Depression Living with a chronic disease like Crohn’s can trigger spells of depression. Exercise is a useful tool in counteracting depression, especially when it's done in combination with other therapies like talk therapy or medication.
  • Osteoporosis prevention People with Crohn’s disease are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease. The good news is that osteoporosis is preventable. Weight-bearing exercises like lifting, jogging, walking, dancing, and stair-climbing strengthen your bones and reduce your risk of complications or injuries.
  • Weight management When a person is overweight, excess fat can build up around the liver, causing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that’s on the rise in the United States, including among people with IBD. The disease can lead to other complications, including heart disease and even death.

What to Do Before You Start Exercising

If you’ve always led an active life, be it in organized sports or otherwise, you probably have a good idea of what workouts best suit you. But if you’ve recently been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, what has worked in the past may not be the best option during a flare-up. Before starting a new exercise program, make sure you:

  • Talk to your doctor first. Although research shows that getting regular exercise is essential for everyone, including people with Crohn’s disease, it’s still a good idea to talk to your doctor. He or she can give you advice about how to incorporate the right level of intensity into your routine to ensure you get the maximum benefit without injuring yourself.
  • Choose exercises you enjoy. After you get the go-ahead from your doctor, choosing the right exercises will be up to you. A good rule of thumb is to choose workout activities that you enjoy. Sticking with only workouts you enjoy will help you stay motivated and make exercise something you look forward to rather than dread. If you prefer to break a sweat by yourself, then running, cycling, or walking might be the best option for you. But if you like to work out in a group, you might join an exercise or dance class or a rock climbing or cycling club.
  • Make it a routine. The key to exercise is doing it regularly, says Bincy Abraham, MD, the director of the inflammatory bowel disease program at Houston Methodist Hospital, even if this means modifying the intensity of your workout on flare-up days. Climbing a staircase in your home or apartment building (where you can stay close to a bathroom) or doing gentle yoga are low-intensity ways to get some activity into your day without going overboard.
  • Listen to your own cues. If your body is giving you warning signs, stop and take a break. You may need to modify the intensity or type of workout you're doing. Heller says paying attention to your body is important: “Engaging in whatever form of exercise you can tolerate in the moment will help your body when you're well. It’s possible that you can handle very gentle forms of exercise even during an attack.” Don’t push yourself too hard, and talk to your doctor if you suspect exercise could be making your symptoms worse.

Tips for Making the Most of Your Workout

A few precautions can go a long way to make sure CD doesn’t get in the way of your active lifestyle. Follow these tips to ensure that you can continue to enjoy exercise.

  • Stay close to a bathroom. For your own physical comfort and general peace of mind, plan to exercise near a bathroom. If you like to run, walk, or cycle outdoors, map a route that will take you past public restrooms in case you suddenly need to go. Also, carry some toilet paper with you in case there isn’t any around.
  • Inform your instructor. If you take an exercise class, pick a spot close to the door and let the instructor know that you may have to leave suddenly because of your medical condition (but don’t feel like you have to specify what that medical condition is).
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drink plenty of water before and after your workout (and, in fact, all day) to prevent dehydration. This is good advice for anyone, but dehydration is of particular concern for people with Crohn’s disease who may experience chronic diarrhea, a condition that depletes the body of water. Shoot for at least 64 ounces of water every day.

Planning ahead and listening to your own body can help you stick to a workout routine even when Crohn’s is a factor. Here are a few Crohn's-friendly workouts to consider bringing into your routine.