How Aerobic Exercise Can Help Ulcerative Colitis

Woman swimming to ease ulcerative colitis

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise is a health boost when you're managing most chronic conditions, and a University of Illinois study adds support for one disease on that list—ulcerative colitis, the autoimmune disease that leads to inflammation and ulcers in the gut.

The study, published in the May 2013 issue of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that mice who were allowed to run at will on an exercise wheel for six weeks experienced fewer symptoms of ulcerative colitis when exposed to a chemical that induces colitis symptoms. However, researchers found that mice that were forced to run on an exercise wheel at a moderate pace a few times a week for six weeks experienced higher rates of ulcerative colitis symptoms and a higher death rate after exposure to the same chemical.

The rates of aerobic exercise in the two groups of mice were basically the same, so why the increased rates of ulcerative colitis and death in the mice that were forced to work out?.

“The benefits of aerobic exercise are always going to be better when people or mice are exercising because they want to versus when they are forced to exercise in a study atmosphere,” said David Stein, M.D., a colorectal surgeon, associate professor and chief of the division of colorectal surgery at the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. “When you look at the big picture, the research shows that moderate exercise in a voluntary manner does benefit overall health and improves symptoms of ulcerative colitis.”

Aerobic Exercise Eases Stress Eases Inflammation

The study adds to a growing body of research on the role of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and stress in reducing or increasing the severity of inflammation. In addition to ulcerative colitis, aerobic exercise seems to have benefits for people with inflammation-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“A bunch of studies have shown that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise decreases the inflammatory response in the body and reduces stress,” Dr. Stein said. Physiologically, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise lowers inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein in the body.

“Plus, when you are running, it is peaceful, it is contemplative and you feel good—not stressed," he said. "And an overall reduction of stress in your life is huge, especially if you have ulcerative colitis. Numerous studies have shown stress increases risk of ulcerative colitis flares—the disease progresses when people are in a stressful situation, and symptoms improve when people leave a stressful environment.”

The University of Illinois researchers also pointed out in their study that the benefits of aerobic exercise on ulcerative colitis diminished when exercise got intense. In fact, extreme exercise can harm the gastrointestinal tract, and ulcerative colitis symptoms get worse. Overdoing it equals higher risks.

“When you get to intense aerobic exercise, such as the extreme miles logged by ultra runners, that exercise can actually cause ischemia in the gut and induce colitis symptoms. Not just in people with ulcerative colitis diagnoses but people without the disease as well,” Stein said. “When you exercise to an extreme, you actually suck the blood away from your gastrointestinal tract. The blood supply clamps down because your muscles are getting all your energy sources.” As a result, your bowels die, and you can get bloody bowel movements and a form of colitis, he explained.

This means, as the study and Stein pointed out, that the message when it comes to the management of ulcerative colitis echoes the message for good health in general: all things, including aerobic exercise, should be done in moderation.

By Elizabeth Shimer Bowers