6 Benefits of Exercise for Ulcerative Colitis

It might come as a surprise, but if you have ulcerative colitis (UC), exercise can help you feel better and prevent some common problems that are related to the disease. Check out these great ways that workouts can boost your health. Your doctor can help you decide what kind of activity -- and how much -- is best for you.

1. Strengthen Your Bones

Because you have ulcerative colitis, your bones might not be as strong as they should. Thirty percent to 60% of people with inflammatory bowel disease (including UC and Crohn's disease) have low bone density, according to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.

This could be because of the disease itself. Proteins called cytokines that are part of your body's response to inflammation may change how your body breaks down old bone and creates new bone.

Another reason you may have weaker bones when you have UC is that corticosteroids, which treat your disease, raise your chance of getting osteoporosis.

Whatever the cause of your bone trouble, exercise can help. Bone, like muscle, is living tissue that gets stronger with physical activity.

Best exercise. Weight-bearing activities can help strengthen bones. It's the kind of exercise that makes your body work against gravity, and includes things like using weights as well as walking, climbing stairs, and even dancing.

2. Keep Your Muscles and Joints Working

As many as 1 of every 4 people with inflammatory bowel disease have inflammation in their joints, too. Inflammation, as well as corticosteroid use and poor nutrition, can lead to weaker muscles, which puts more strain on your joints.

Regular exercise makes your muscles stronger and helps your joints move more easily.

Best exercise. The weight-bearing activities that help your bones also help your muscles and joints. Aerobic or cardio exercise that gets your heart beating faster, such as fast walking, builds muscles and strengthens joints, too. If pain makes it tough, try low-impact workouts such as swimming or cycling.

Stretching should also be part of your exercise routine to help keep your muscles and joints flexible.

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3. Recover From Surgery Faster

If you had an operation to treat your ulcerative colitis, regular exercise may make your recovery easier. It strengthens your muscles, keeps your blood circulating to prevent blood clots, and helps keep your lungs clear.

After surgery, ask your doctor when it's OK to start exercising again. If you're in good shape and you exercised regularly before your surgery, you can probably start as soon as you feel up to it. For the first month, you may want to work out more slowly, perhaps for 30 to 45 minutes twice a week. Again, check with your doctor.

Best exercise. Start with walks, going up and down stairs, or easy fitness video workouts. You'll need to pass on exercises such as situps, strenuous activity, or lifting anything heavier than 15 pounds for about 6 weeks after surgery in your belly.

4. Lower Stress

Stress doesn't cause ulcerative colitis, but lots of folks say it makes their symptoms worse. Physical activity is a great way to ease it.

Best exercise. Choose an activity with gentle, relaxing movements. Try yoga, tai chi, or walking.

5. Lift Your Mood

If living with ulcerative colitis starts to wear you down emotionally, exercise can help. Aerobic activities can boost your mood because they trigger your body to make endorphins, the hormones that help relieve pain and give you a sense of well-being.

Best exercise. Take a brisk walk, go dancing, work out at the gym, or do any activity that you can comfortably enjoy.

6. Prevent Colon Cancer

Regular exercise lowers the risk of colon cancer for people without UC. An analysis of 52 studies found that people who exercised the most (brisk walking for 5 or 6 hours a week) were 24% less likely to develop colon cancer than those who exercised the least (just a half-hour a week).

Could exercise help prevent colon cancer in people with UC, too? Researchers don't know. It can't hurt to take the chance of this possible bonus effect, especially since people with ulcerative colitis are more likely to get colon cancer.

Best exercise. Work up a sweat by walking fast, biking on hills, or other forms of exercise that really get you moving. If you're just starting out, go slow and gradually build up your activity level as you get more fit. For some people, vigorous exercise may trigger cramps and diarrhea, so you may need to back off the intensity a bit or switch to a different kind of exercise.

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Exercise Dos and Don'ts for Ulcerative Colitis

Physical activity can keep you healthy and improve your life, but your UC may put some limits on the types you do. To exercise comfortably and safely:

  • Use a workout DVD at home if gas or diarrhea makes taking a class uncomfortable.
  • Exercise on a treadmill, rather than outside, if you need to stay close to a restroom.
  • Don't exercise when it's very hot, which can make dehydration more likely.
  • Switch to a gentler kind of workout if you get diarrhea after aerobics or lifting weights.
  • Drink plenty of fluids before and after exercising, especially if you have diarrhea or ostomy discharge. Water is always a good choice. So are sports drinks with glucose or fructose plus electrolytes.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 29, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "What People With Inflammatory Bowel Disease Need to Know About Osteoporosis."

Patricia L. Roberts, MD, professor of surgery, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston; colorectal surgeon, Lahey Clinic, Burlington, MA.

Wolin, K. British Journal of Cancer, February 2009.

American Cancer Society: "The Complete Guide -- Nutrition and Physical Activity."

Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America: "Keeping Fit," "Extraintestinal Complications: Bone Loss," "Living with Ulcerative Colitis."

Cleveland Clinic: "About laparoscopic intestinal surgery."

Narula N. and Fedorak R. Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology, May 2008.

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