During high school and her first years of college, Jessica Caron had always been active, running on the track team, playing soccer, and cheerleading. Then, during a spring break trip when she was 20 years old, Caron went through a miserable episode of nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting. At 21, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
Now in her early 30s, a mother of two young sons, and a patient advocate who writes the blog Chronically Jess, Caron has had to rethink her approach to exercise as a result of her diagnosis.
“I realized that exercise and activity was really important to help myself feel well, and especially when coming out of disease flares, it was particularly helpful to get my body back to a healthy state of being,” she says. “I’d always enjoyed it, but now I realized it was a necessity.”
If you’ve been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, you may be wondering what forms of exercise are right for you, if there are exercises you should avoid, and how to manage an exercise routine during a disease flare.
Why You Should Exercise If You Have Crohn’s
Exercise is good for everyone — even people with Crohn’s. In fact, says Sushila Dalal, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Chicago who specializes in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) there’s reason to think working up a good sweat may help keep your condition under control.
“First, we know that people with IBD have high levels of anxiety and depression, and exercise is one healthy way to cope. In addition, there is even some research that suggests that exercise could be helpful in maintaining remission and reducing symptom flares,” she says. For example, a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that walking three times a week at a moderate pace for about half an hour helped improve Crohn’s symptoms. Other studies have also found that moderate exercise is good for people with Crohn’s.
“Exercise helps to relieve stress, and stress is well known to contribute to disease flare-ups,” Dalal says. “My patients consistently tell me that they tend to feel better when they are keeping up with an exercise routine: they have less pain, more energy, their bowel movements are more regular, things like that. They just have a greater sense of well-being.”
People with Crohn’s disease are also at greater risk for bone loss and osteoporosis, and weight-bearing exercise is important to improve bone health and slow bone loss.
What Type of Exercise Should You Do?
Caron says that at first, she didn’t know how to get back into exercising and build the right kind of routine after her diagnosis. You may feel the same way. “It was trial and error,” she says. “I started trying things on for size to see how they would feel.”
There are really no right or wrong exercises for someone with Crohn’s, Dalal says. If you’re new to exercise or haven’t been exercising regularly for a while, it’s a good idea to start slow and easy. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America recommends low-impact activities such as:
Listen to Your Body
Caron says she’s tried most of these activities at various times while figuring out what works best for her.
“Today, I challenge myself to walk every day and do yoga a couple of times a week, at least,” she says. “I find that it helps me with my fatigue and joint pain. When I’m doing better, I like to mix it up with some running, or if I’m doing really well, I’ll do some high-intensity interval training (HIIT), but I haven’t been able to do that in a while because of joint pain.”
But one thing she’s found that absolutely does not work: overdoing it. “I’ve found that trying to push my body too much means that muscles will become inflamed or I’ll be in pain that will keep me from being able to exercise for the next few days. I realized that routine was important.”
Dalal agrees. “Start slow. A little bit is a positive change,” she says. “Set aside the time and get into the routine, and don’t worry at the beginning about how much you’re doing or how intense it is. Focus on forming those habits, so you can slowly build up your endurance and tolerance.”
And don’t compare yourself to others, Caron says. “So you can’t run the 5K you saw your friend do on Instagram? That’s not important. And I’m not going to listen to that person in my cardio class saying, ‘Push it, push it, harder, harder.’ I’m going to listen to my body. I’m going to do what’s available to me today, and focus on my long-term goal of staying well.”
What About Flares?
Should you exercise if you’re in the middle of a symptom flare?
“When you have a flare, it’s probably a good idea to pull back a little bit and give your body a chance to heal,” Dalal says. “If you’re having a lot of diarrhea, for example, you don’t want to become dehydrated. Fatigue is also a big issue during active inflammation, as is anemia. Keep in mind that you may not be able to do as much during a flare for those reasons.”
If you have any concerns about your exercise routine, talk to your doctor. “A couple of years ago, I noticed that running was becoming harder and harder for me; I’d be more and more short of breath every time,” Caron says. “I reached out to my doctor, who ran some tests and discovered that I was really anemic.”
And she says that on really bad days, getting up and going to get the mail or put in a load of laundry count as exercise. “Hey, at least I moved around that day!” she says. “That’s a success. It’s important that we listen to our bodies and understand that they are constantly changing over time. And no matter what you did, celebrate that you did it! If you got out to the grocery store in the middle of a flare, celebrate the heck out of that. Build on your own momentum.”