Fitness / Green Living / Mental Health

Fitness Friday – Exercising with IBD or GI challenges

depression-stock-imageOver the last few years I’ve been developing ever-worsening symptoms of a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder.  About 18 months ago I was given a preliminary diagnosis of irritable bowel disease (IBD) and over the last number of months I’ve been working through a number of elimination diets as well as the diagnostic process for Crohn’s disease.  In addition to those symptoms, I experience chronic pain associated with manual labour and mental health issues including anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  Needless to say, its been very hard for me to stay active! But…


BECAUSE physical activity and exercise can help with all those things!
(see more info & references at end of post)


Just get moving!

One of the first challenges I had to overcome is moving at all when I wasn’t feeling well!  I can say from personal experience just how hard it can be to even move from the couch to bathroom to bed sometimes.  It is very important to listen to our own body, and the bad-flare ups I was experiencing wasn’t a great time to start an exercise routine. Now that I have been active for a period of time, I am finding I am able to handle gentle movement and stretching even when I am at my most painful and nauseous.  My symptoms also change daily, making it hard to plan activities.  One day I may feel well enough to go to dance classes and for a long bicycle ride, another day I may be too fatigued to leave the house and opt for stretching on the carpet.  Adding a layer of chronic pain, depression and anxiety to the mix and often I opted to stay in bed or on the couch.  Breaking through that motivation barrier was my first hurdle to overcome!

Pick an enjoyable activity!

I know this is a novel idea but… I have much more success sticking to my fitness plans when I pick activities that I actually want to do!  Right??  There is no point in me saying I’m going to run a marathon or take up kickboxing, its highly unlikely to happen.  I have though, been able to stick to 2+ weeks of daily yoga recently – because I am enjoying it!  I am motivated to get to class every day instead of dreading something I feel obligated to do.  I keep a list nearby of activities I do or might enjoy, at varying intensities for days that I have more or less energy or symptoms.  Low-impact exercise activities seem to be the best choice for me at the moment.  I also keep a journal and track which activities have what effect on my body.  Running for example has been off the list for quite some time because the up and down jarring effect sloshes everything around inside of me and makes my nausea unbearable 😦  Walking on the other hand is almost always possible – briskly covering long distances on good days, slow steps around my backyard on bad ones 🙂  On my very worst days when joint pain and internal inflammation limit my movement, I still try to stretch even just sitting on the couch or carpet.  Stuck for ideas? >> IBDrelief has a great list of suggested activities

Stay hydrated and keep eating!

I also know from personal experience just how hard it can be to stay hydrated when everything just comes back up again, to stay well-fed when everything makes you nauseous or irritated further down.  Any physical activity or exercise can be taxing on a healthy body so for those of us experiencing chronic illness it is important to take care of ourselves.  I personally have to watch out frequent anemia, especially when I’m experiencing bleeding symptoms, which results in me feeling extremely exhausted.  I have to be careful not to wear myself out or push myself too hard, and check in with my doctor regularly.  I have found drinking lots of water helpful to my condition in general, but I am particularly conscious to drink water before, during and after any activity.  I am careful to sip my water slowly as drinking too much liquid during physical activity can cause cramps or stitches.  Its a double-edged sword though, any vigorous exercise can cause cramping but dehydration can make it much worse.  I already experience enough cramping and gut pain from my condition, I don’t need any more thank you!  Keeping well fueled is another challenge, that I tackle in some of my wellness recipe posts.

Listen to yourself, trust your own body!

I have always believed in self-insight and self-intuition, that we know ourselves better than anyone else can.  This is always an important skill, but I am particularly mindful to check in with myself when I am doing any sort of activity that could move beyond my comfort zone, my abilities, my stamina.  I am developing my physical self-awareness through yoga, being aware of good posture and alignment but also learning the practice of body-scans (I have a future post planned that will cover this in more detail).  I try to scan my body and see how different parts are feeling every 10 – 15 minutes or when transitioning between types of movement and make any necessary adjustments.  I pay close attention for any pain or increase in symptoms any time I start a new activity or progress to a new level.  For any activity I’m going to do, I try to always have a lower-intensity backup plan, so I can continue to stay active even if symptoms or energy levels slow me down.  If I really don’t feel well enough (which is not the same as lacking motivation!) for a class, an activity, a workout, an outing – I trust what I am feeling, and let myself off the hook.

References and more information…

Numerous studies have shown that physical activity can improve quality of life, and reduce disease activity for IBD patients!  Preliminary studies demonstrate that moderate exercise has no negative health effects and may diminish some symptoms of IBD. The exercise is recommended also because it could counteract some IBD specific complications by improving immunological response, psychological health, nutritional status, bone mineral density and reversing the decrease of muscle mass and strength. Recent research suggests that the beneficial effects of regular exercise may be in part due to the anti-inflammatory effects of myokines released due to skeletal muscle contractions.

Physical activity has also been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and improve quality of life for people suffering from depression to the point that it can be considered a ‘proven strategy’ for overcoming depression.  Exercise has been shown to reduce stress and lower anxiety symptoms, improve quality of life  for people suffering from anxiety, through a number of different mechanisms.  Aerobic exercise is even effective in reducing (long term) the severity and occurance of OCD symptoms.  A combination of CBT + exercise seems to be particularly effective for overcoming mood and anxiety disorders and OCD.

I want to acknowledge that I was inspired to tackle this challenge (and to write this post) after reading ‘How Fitness Can Change Your Life‘ by Liz Joyce of Joyce Training!  I have written from my own perspective, but I have learned from her advice.



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