Movement with IBD

Written By: Holly Fowler

Let me start by saying that I have done everything wrong in terms of exercising with my diagnosis. I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2008, when I was 19 years old. I have always been active before and after my diagnosis, and always felt like I needed to go to the extreme of everything I do. I ran a marathon in the middle of a flare-up out of stubbornness. Then dove headfirst into Crossfit 5 times a week with minimal rest days, causing multiple flare-ups.


In the process of doing everything wrong, I researched the most effective ways to move my body with Ulcerative Colitis, in the healthiest and most sustainable way. Exercise is an important part of my life, so it is important that I find something that I can do for the rest of my life.


Why is movement important for IBD?

Inflammatory Bowel Disease can be a debilitating disease, especially in the midst of a flare-up. It often leaves me on the couch or in bed for hours--or even days-- at a time. If I’m being completely honest, being a sack of potatoes for extended periods of time makes my body feel stiff and achy all over. When I’m already fighting a digestive disease, I really don’t want an achy back and joints to go with it.

Moving your body even just a little bit each day can alleviate said achy back and joints. Being active even just a few minutes each day also increases blood flow, which promotes healing in the body.


Rethinking the definition of movement

For years, I equated movement with long-distance runs or a sweaty workout. Anything else didn’t count as moving my body, so I continued pushing and punishing my body far past its limits in the name of “getting in a good workout”. I wasn’t listening to what kind of movement my body actually needed.

In reality, moving the body for health purposes can and should look different for everyone, especially when it comes to living with an autoimmune disease. Sometimes, the best form of movement you can do for your body is to go for a light walk around your neighborhood, or practice gentle yoga, or stretch for 10 minutes each day.

And with that, I would like to share how movement can look based on where you are at in your health.


Exercising in a flare-up


In a flare-up, your body is working overtime and fighting inflammation. So your level of exercise is going to look different than if you were in remission. Rather than resisting and pushing through, I recommend taking the time to recognize what is going on in your body and adjust your exercise accordingly.

Switch to low-impact exercises like yoga, walking, biking, swimming, and stretching. You also want to incorporate more rest days to allow your body to heal and recover.


Exercising while recovering from a flare-up

Whether your flare-up lasted a few days, weeks, or months, you want to take it slowly getting back into exercising again. Your body has been working so hard to recover from attacking itself, so it is important to not jump right back into that HIIT or Crossfit class right away. 

Start with the low-impact cardio mentioned above and slowly begin adding in bodyweight movements. You want to keep these movements slow, intentional, and short in length of time. Your body needs time to rebuild strength, so take your time and modify as needed.


Exercising in remission

This may look different for everyone, depending on how long you have been in remission. It is important not to compare yourself to anyone else in this phase. We are all on our own unique paths after all! For now, I’m going to offer recommendations for those that are recently in remission.

 As you progress and recover, really listen to your body. Take note of your energy level and your fitness level.

At this point, you have the base of low impact cardio and bodyweight movements. Now is the time for you to begin adding light weights to your movements. Exciting stuff! For me, it is the best feeling in the world to be able to add weights to my movements again.

Be careful not to overdo it. Slowly work your way up to heavier weight. Pay attention to how your body responds--if you are extremely sore or in pain after a workout, try going down in weight or back to just bodyweight the next time

In remission, you can begin attending group classes again if you feel up to it. Rather than jumping into a HIIT class, you may want to try pilates or barre to start.

I want to note one important thing here: everyone is different. There are those few who can tolerate a high-intensity workout or a long-distance run in remission. Personally speaking, I didn’t start flaring until mile 18 of my marathon training in 2014 and now in 2021 I can’t tolerate running nearly as well.


In conclusion 

Most importantly, listen to your body in every stage of your health and pay attention to the type of movement it needs. Don’t get wrapped up in the trendy workouts--you know what is best for you body after all!