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GI Problems Shouldn't Rule out Most Types of Exercise

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A slew of questions arise when you are diagnosed with a gastrointestinal disorder such as Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome. One question might be, can I continue my exercise routine?

Mostly likely your health care practitioner will give you a resounding “yes” and, hopefully, will suggest physical activities that will fit your lifestyle even when you have a chronic bowel disorder.

GI disorders such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (the two main inflammatory bowel diseases) and irritable bowel syndrome can prompt worries about “accidents” before you can reach a bathroom. In addition, a bad day with your condition can mean diarrhea, constipation or a combination. It can also mean abdominal cramps and pain, rectal bleeding, bloating and fatigue.

But those challenges can be overcome with the right treatments and therapies, paving the way for the many positive aspects of exercise.

A feature on WebMD shares a number of interviews with medical and exercise experts who list these benefits of physical activity, even when you think a GI disorder excuses you:

-- Exercise helps you maintain a normal body weight and aids digestion.

-- It can induce feelings of well-being and help control stress, which is important when you consider the mind-gut connection: the brain registers anxiety or stress, and the gut often responds with an upset stomach.

-- Many physical activities incorporate breathing exercises and thus can instill calm and clarity in instances when you feel overwhelmed by your GI disorder.

The American Council on Exercise recommends low-impact activities such as yoga, tai chi and Pilates because they don’t involve a lot of jarring movement, they strengthen the pelvic floor, and they incorporate rhythmic breathing. The Council also endorses treadmills but prefers walking at an incline for a good workout instead of running.

Doctors interviewed by WebMD cautioned against pushing yourself too hard when you are having an off day. Sometimes medications for GI disorders drain your energy, and that might be a sign to put off exercise until you feel better.

A handout from the Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders at the University of North Carolina gives a thumbs-up to yoga for improving overall health as well as targeting specific problems.

“Yoga teaches us to breathe as babies do, into our abdomen,” writes Dana Carroll, a yoga practitioner and irritable bowel syndrome patient, in the handout (available as a PDF). The slow, deep breaths of yoga combined with various yoga poses “open up our bodies in a way that allows energy and calm to travel throughout our systems,” Carroll says. The regular practice of yoga lessens the frequency and intensity of irritable bowel syndrome occurrences, the writer contends.

Look for a yoga class that emphasizes breathing awareness, not just yoga poses or yoga-like exercise.

Recommendations about exercise might change a bit if your chronic bowel disorder leads to a colostomy, ileostomy or other procedure to evacuate waste from your digestive system to a pouch.

A good source of information in such cases is www.ostomy.org, the website of the United Ostomy Associations of America. In a Frequently Asked Questions section, the UOAA says, “An ostomy should not limit your participation in sports.” There is a cautionary word about contact sports and weightlifting, however.


Hendrick, Bill. “Exercising When You Have a GI Disorder.” WebMD. 19 Dec. 2011. http://www.webmd.com/ibd-crohns-disease/ulcerative-colitis/features/exercising-when-you-have-a-gi-disorder?ecd=wnl_gid_090111

Carroll, Dana. “Yoga and IBS.” Educational GI Handouts (PDF). UNC Center for Functional and GI Motility Disorders. Web. 19 Dec. 2011. http://www.med.unc.edu/ibs/patient-education/educational-gi-handouts

“UOAA Ostomy FAQ.” United Ostomy Associations of America. Web. 19 Dec. 2011. http://www.ostomy.org/ostomy_info/faq.shtml

Reviewed December 19, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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