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Ulcerative Colitis Health Center

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7 Tips for Exercise Success With a GI Disorder

By Laurel Leicht
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by William Blahd, MD

She’s always been active, but when Megan Starshak began having gastrointestinal issues as a teenager, it put a serious cramp in her exercise routine.

“I was running in Florida on spring break in high school, and all of a sudden, I had to go to the bathroom -- badly,” says Starshak, who's now in her early 30s and works in marketing in Milwaukee.

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“We found a bathroom, and by the end of the run, I had to go again... just as badly!” At first she thought she’d caught a bug, but the problem continued, along with fatigue and belly pain. Eventually her doctor diagnosed her with ulcerative colitis, a condition that causes inflammation in the digestive tract.

The worst part of Starshak’s situation? Her symptoms got worse when she was running. That’s not unusual for people who have GI disorders.

“Anyone who exercises and is using abdominal muscles puts pressure on the gastrointestinal tract -- including the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine -- and that can bring out symptoms,” says Keith J. Benkov, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

4 Conditions That Exercise Affects

1. Crohn’s disease is an immune system condition that causes inflammation of the cell lining of the digestive tract. Symptoms include bleeding, diarrhea, belly pain, and not being able to eat.

2. Ulcerative colitis is similar, but it mostly affects the colon, not the entire digestive tract. “The disease is not as deep as Crohn’s but tends to cause more pain, diarrhea, and bleeding,” says Lisa Ganjhu, DO, a gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.

3. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) brings on symptoms that can be "very similar to IBD [inflammatory bowel disease], but IBS never involves inflammation of the GI tract and usually doesn’t cause any blood in the stool,” Benkov says.

One way it can make activity tough is by making you have to go to the bathroom often. The GI tract moves in wave-like contractions. In people with IBS, sometimes those waves are faster, so you wind up with diarrhea, or slower, so you end up bloated and constipated, Ganjhu says.

4. Reflux won’t send you hurrying for a toilet, but it’s inconvenient when you work out, too. It happens when a leaky valve at the top of your stomach lets stomach acid wash back up into the esophagus (the tube that connects your throat to your stomach). It can cause heartburn and make it hard to swallow, and these symptoms can get worse during exercise, Ganjhu says.

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