Exercise with inflammatory bowel disease

Exercise with inflammatory bowel disease

For everyone, the health benefits of regular exercise are well-established and include:1,2

  • Positive impact on mood, sleep quality and energy levels
  • Lower risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, depression, dementia and some cancers

You can still exercise if you have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, in fact, those who do exercise are less likely to have active disease (flares). However, you may need to reconsider the type of exercise you do and adapt this to your capabilities.2

The benefits of exercise for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Exercise usually improves the disease activity, mood, quality of life, fatigue levels, weight maintenance, and osteoporosis of people with IBD.2

It is thought that exercise has an overall anti-inflammatory effect which may help bring symptoms under control.2

How much exercise should I do?

The NHS recommends a goal of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, spread evenly over the week for healthy adults.1 If you have a medical condition like IBD, it is a good idea to speak to your GP about a level of activity that is appropriate for you to attempt.

Ideally, aim to do some physical activity every day. Try to include both of these types:

  • Exercise that strengthens your arms, shoulders, hips, back, abdomen, chest (your major muscle groups)
  • Some moderately intense activity to get your heart rate up (often referred to as ‘cardio’)

You will benefit from anything that reduces long periods spent not moving.1

Two friends walking through the park to exercise.

What exercise should I do?

You might not be used to regular exercise, in which case it is a good idea to start gently and gradually build up as your confidence and fitness improve.3 If you have been very inactive, you might like to consult your doctor about where to begin.

Moderate exercise should slightly increase your heart rate. Vigorous exercise makes you breathe hard and fast, and it takes some time to be able to build up your ability to exercise at this intensity.1,4,5

Intensity of exercise

As the intensity increases, heart rate, respiratory rate and energy consumption also increase further.

Infographic showing different intensities of exercise. Light- Gardening, yoga, light housework. Moderate- Hiking, gentle jogging, cycling, walking. Vigorous- Swimming, aerobics, netball, football.

Barriers to exercise

You may have times when you are less well and feel too tired, or too anxious about toilet access, to want to exercise.5

If you are unwell and exhausted, it is important to rest and get enough sleep so do not put undue pressure on yourself to exercise during these periods.5

If you are well enough to be active, but you are experiencing a flare or symptoms, consider doing something less intense than your usual activity until you feel better – you will still gain benefit.

Building up your capacity

If you have not been regularly exercising or have been unwell, the amount of exercise you can do will be limited. However, you can work to build up your capacity for exercise by, for example:

  • Staying at home and walking up and down the stairs three times
  • Going outside for a short time, planning your walking or running routes around places where you know there will be a toilet5
  • Joining a gym, sports club or other indoor centre where there are toilet facilities you can reach quickly5

It is important to know that many people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative suffer from fatigue. Fatigue goes beyond normal tiredness experienced after doing lots of mental or physical activity. If this is something you are struggling with you should contact your IBD team.

You could also read the Crohn’s and Colitis UK (CCUK) guidance on how to cope with Fatigue and living with IBD – find it here.

Find out more on other topics which may affect you

NHS guidance on exercise

NHS guidance on exercise


IBD = Inflammatory bowel disease.

  1. NHS. Benefits of exercise. https://www.nhs.uk/Live-well/exercise/exercise-health-benefits. Accessed October 2023.
  2. Bilski J, et al. Can exercise affect the course of inflammatory bowel disease? Experimental and clinical evidence. Pharmacol Rep 2016;68(4):827–36. 
  3. NHS. Physical activity guidelines for adults aged 19 to 64. www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/exercise-guidelines/physical-activity-guidelines-for-adults-aged-19-to-64/. Accessed October 2023.
  4. Engels M, et al. Exercise in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases: current perspectives. Clin Exp Gastroenterol 2017;11:1-11.
  5. CCUK. Living with Crohn’s or Colitis. https://crohnsandcolitis.org.uk/media/1hilfpqr/living-with-crohns-or-colitis.pdf. Accessed October 2023.