While Crohn’s disease might force you to make some changes to your workout routine, you should still exercise. In fact, some Crohn’s symptoms may even be improved with physical activity.
Living with Crohn’s disease means making modifications to your daily routine, but for most people, that routine should still include exercise. Exercise benefits almost everyone, and people who have chronic conditions such as Crohn’s are no exception.
While it was once thought that exercise could worsen Crohn’s symptoms, such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and rectal bleeding, studies have shown that this is not the case. In fact, research has shown that light exercise can benefit people who have mild Crohn’s disease.
Exercise Benefits for Crohn’s Symptoms
One important way exercise can help people who have Crohn’s disease is by improving their overall health. “A healthy body helps control disease,” says R. Balfour Sartor, MD, chief medical advisor at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) and a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “Good nutrition and exercise are important for good health. I’m convinced that people do better with disease when they are fit.”
In one Canadian study, researchers found that taking a walk for as little as 30 minutes three days a week increased well-being and quality of life in people with mild Crohn’s disease.
There are also several long-term benefits of exercise for Crohn’s patients, including faster recovery from surgery, rebuilding of weakened muscles, and the prevention of calcium and protein loss from bones. “After surgery, exercise can increase stamina, prevent blood clots, increase flexibility, and strengthen muscles,” says Dr. Sartor. Exercise can also stimulate endorphins, which are mood-lifting hormones. This can help you control stress, a common trigger for Crohn’s flares, as well as prevent feelings of depression.
Good Exercise Choices for Crohn’s
In general, low-impact exercises such as walking and swimming are good options, particularly if you have arthritis, which affects as many as 25 percent of people with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. “Patients with anemia or arthritis can’t jog. For them, swimming, cycling, and walking are less traumatic to the joints,” says Sartor. If your anal area is tender or irritated from Crohn’s symptoms, some activities may be uncomfortable, such as bicycling or horseback riding. This is when swimming or other low-impact aerobic activities may be better options.
You might also want to try weight training, or strength training. Ask your doctor if these types of activities would be good for you to rebuild muscles weakened by illness and medications.
Exercise Safety and Precautions
Before starting any new exercise routine, you should to your doctor for recommendations. You’ll also want to start slow and see how the exercises make you feel before trying more-intense activities. These tips can help:
Know when to avoid or slow down physical activity. “You have to match your activity level with the disease and how you feel,” says Sartor. “Listen to your body. If something hurts, don’t push it.” If you experience a Crohn’s flare-up or have recently been in the hospital, allow your routine to be interrupted and know you will get back to it once you feel better. “Particularly after abdominal surgery, you may be prone to developing a hernia,” says Sartor.
Modify your workouts as needed. Overexertion from doing vigorous aerobics or strenuous weight lifting can sometimes lead to diarrhea, cramps, or nausea. If you are experiencing Crohn’s symptoms after exercise, talk to your doctor about changing your exercise routine.
Drink plenty of water. Hydration is particularly important for Crohn’s patients who tend to have diarrhea or have an ostomy.
Avoid eating a large meal for at least three hours before your workout. Instead, try to eat small meals throughout the day to make sure you get the nutrients you need.
By taking some precautions and getting guidance from your Crohn’s medical team, you can work exercise into your lifestyle and help improve your Crohn’s symptoms.
How to Find Relief During a Crohn’s Flare
Diarrhea, dehydration, fever — some simple strategies may help you get relief from discomfort.
Even the most well-managed cases of Crohn’s disease can flare. This often means that a step up in treatment is needed to get symptoms under control. Figuring out the right treatment path by working with your doctor to determine if the flare is due to a worsening of the disease or a development of complications is a good first step.
“People who’ve lived with Crohn’s all their lives get to know their symptoms and flares very well, but even the most experienced can get confused,” says Cyrus Tamboli, MD, a gastroenterologist and director of the inflammatory bowel diseases service at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. A Crohn’s disease flare implies a worsening of the inflammation, but symptoms can occur for other reasons, namely complications of the disease. “This can include an infection, an abscess, or rarely, a tumor in the colon,” Dr. Tamboli says.
If inflammation is causing your symptoms, your doctor might need to adjust the dosage of your medications. A short-term adjustment, or dose tailoring, may be enough to get symptoms back under control, according to research published in the Internal Medicine Journal in 2014. However, Tamboli says your doctor might also order tests to find out whether you’re experiencing complications that would benefit from other treatment.
Crohn’s Disease Symptoms You Can Manage
While you’re waiting for treatment to kick in, there are things you can do to get relief from symptoms. Try these tips to help manage the most common Crohn’s disease symptoms:
Dehydration. Start by making sure you’re getting enough fluids. “The best thing people with Crohn’s disease can do is to be able to make lots of clear urine by drinking plenty of fluids,” says Peter Higgins, MD, PhD, director of the inflammatory bowel disease research program at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.
The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) suggests drinking half an ounce for every pound of body weight each day. For instance, if you weigh 150 pounds, drink 75 ounces of fluids daily. Ask your doctor if you can stay hydrated well enough on your own or if you need to be rehydrated intravenously at your local clinic.
Discomfort from diarrhea. Frequent bowel movements can create irritation. For relief, the CCFA suggests to:
- Soak in a warm bath and gently pat peri-anal skin dry.
- Apply an emollient to protect delicate peri-anal skin.
- Avoid foods or beverages that might worsen diarrhea.
Abdominal pain. Cramping, bloating, and gas can be painful. Try these steps to reduce discomfort:
- Eat smaller meals, but eat them more often to get enough calories.
- Avoid foods that might worsen cramping, such as dairy products and fatty foods.
- Limit high-fiber foods.
Nausea. Talk with your doctor if nausea is keeping you from eating, drinking, or taking medications. Dr. Higgins says that some people might need anti-nausea medications that either dissolve slowly in the mouth or are available as suppositories. You can also try to relieve nausea naturally with options such as ginger or aromatherapy.
Weight loss. If a Crohn’s disease flare keeps you from eating, drinking, or absorbing nutrients, weight loss can be a serious concern. The CCFA recommends these steps to maintain a healthy weight:
- Work with a dietitian to create a plan for eating well despite your symptoms.
- Look for high-calorie, nutrient-dense foods you can tolerate. Consider peanut butter, bananas, cooked white rice, canned fruits, and cooked fish.
- Keep a food diary to keep track of the calories you take in.
- Rapid weight loss may require medical attention, so keep your doctor informed.
Fever. Fever is triggered by inflammation and will likely decrease as your treatment starts to work. Avoid taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) without your doctor’s approval because they can aggravate the digestive system, Tamboli says. Acetaminophen is usually safe as long as you don’t exceed the recommended dosage.
Fatigue. Higgins says fatigue should improve if you stay hydrated, manage your diet, and stick to your treatment plan. To avoid worsening fatigue, get enough sleep and pace yourself throughout the day.
Mouth sores. If mouth sores are part of a Crohn’s disease flare, ask your doctor about using lidocaine jelly to manage discomfort, Higgins says. The CCFA recommends using medicinal mouthwashes as an option for some mouth sores.
Vision trouble. Some people with Crohn’s disease experience symptoms such as blurring vision, eye pain, dry eye, and sensitivity to light. Make sure your eye doctor knows you have Crohn’s disease. Ask about eye drops to help manage symptoms and protect your eyes from inflammation.
Skin problems. Symptoms of a Crohn’s disease flare can include tender red bumps, skin tags, and sores, as well as damage to the sensitive skin around the anus. Try these skin care tips:
- Keep peri-anal skin clean and dry.
- Use moisturizers.
- Avoid tight clothing that might irritate peri-anal skin.
Taking these self-care steps should help you to feel more comfortable during a flare of Crohn’s disease symptoms.