By Jenna Pettit

Medically reviewed by Jenny Blair, MD

Some research shows that for people with mild to moderate IBD, exercise may help boost quality of life. But it’s not that simple. Many of us feel self-conscious, unmotivated, or anxious to work out. As someone who has Crohn’s disease, I can relate to those worries, which is why I interviewed a few people living with IBD about what advice they’d offer to a workout newbie.

So, before you swear off working out—consider these tips which might help motivate you to break a sweat.

Young men socializing and preparing for a soccer game, tips for exercising with Crohn's disease

Find Something You Love

Ulcerative colitis advocate Jordan Wilson, 35, Orange County, California, has been spinning or cycling for three years. Wilson is now a cycle instructor—and has even got involved with spin4 crohn’s & colitis events the last few years.

Wilson’s advice to IBD patients looking to get into cycling? “Stay hydrated! As a J-pouch patient myself, I have a greater risk of getting dehydrated so I make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after an indoor cycling class. I even drink a BCAA supplement before a class to help with hydration and recovery.”

Another tip from Wilson—-use the bathroom before your workout. “I don’t want to be distracted by the urge to go to the bathroom while I’m working out. So, if I go right before, I usually am able to get through the entire workout with no issues.”

Working out with IBD, using yoga to ease ulcerative colitis symptoms

Pick Something You Can Do, When You Don’t Want to Do Anything

Troy Parsons, a Crohn’s disease advocate and men’s physique competitor says yoga can be a great way to boost your health and stay active—especially if high intensity exercise may not be possible (like when you’re living with a chronic illness). Parsons, 27, Vancouver, BC, Canada, doesn’t consider himself a yogi or even the type of person you’d typically see at a yoga class, but it works for him—especially if he’s flaring.

“When my disease is active, or I need to listen to my body and slow down, yoga is my go-to low impact exercise. I find it particularly helpful when I’ve overexerted myself, feeling stressed or unable to do other types of exercise due to IBD, I find yoga is a great way to get myself moving.”

Friends walking outdoors after a workout, tips for working out with inflammatory bowel disease

Calm Your Nerves

If your IBD symptoms are holding you back from the gym, consider these tips and plan ahead.

  • Bring baby wipes. I always bring baby wipes or some kind of soft wipe with me to the gym. (Sometimes I forget and I’ll just use makeup wipes instead.) Nothing is worse than when you’re in a flare and have to use toilet paper in a public place.
  • Pack extra pants. I always bring a pair of extra workout pants just in case of an accident.
  • Introduce yourself. If you’re participating in a group fitness class, go up to the instructor and introduce yourself. Tell them about your condition and ask them if there are any modifications you can make. Also, find a spot in the class where you feel comfortable and where you can see the instructor.
Woman swimming in open water, low impact exercise with ulcerative colitis, arthritis

Consider Your Joints

Arthritis is a common IBD complication. In fact, up to 25 percent of people with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis experience arthritis, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. If you’re looking for a joint-friendly workout, then try:

  • Walking: If you plan to start a walking regimen, be sure to talk to your doctor first. He or she can advise on how much physical activity you can manage. Then invest in a pair of comfortable walking shoes, turn on the tunes, and hit the pavement.
  • Swimming: This exercise is widely considered to be joint-friendly because the buoyancy of the water supports your body weight, thus putting less stress on joints that normally withstand high impacts. Some evidence supports the benefits of swimming exercise in older adults with osteoarthritis. But be mindful: overuse and faulty swimming form can lead to shoulder, knee, and neck injuries. Before you hit the lap pool or beach, remember to talk to your doctor and get their okay.
Before working out with IBD, patient consults with doctor

Loop in Your Doctor

Yoga, strength training, walking—no matter what exercise you try, talk to your doctor first. They can provide guidance on the right exercises for your needs, plus help you figure out how much exercise you should be doing.

Woman checking smart watch fitness monitor during workout, fitness and IBD

Do What You Can

Whether you’re in a group fitness class or working out solo—do only what you can handle. You don’t always have to give 100 percent in every workout. Listen to your body. It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to modify. There are days I feel fatigued and I just do the best that I can. I am still proud of myself for showing up and doing what I could.

Jenny Blair is a writer and journalist covering science, medicine, and the humanities. She earned her MD at Yale University, then completed a residency in emergency medicine at the University of Chicago. After several years in practice, she transitioned to working with words and ideas full-time. Jenny has contributed to Discover, New Scientist, Washington Spectator, and Medtech Insight, among other publications. She lives in New York City.

Oshi is a tracking tool and content resource. It does not render medical advice or services, and it is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. You should always review this information with your healthcare professionals.