Ulcers and Exercise: The Dos and Don’ts

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Some studies have shown that regular exercise may decrease stomach ulcers.
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Exercising with a stomach ulcer may be a safe choice for some people, but for others it can aggravate symptoms or interfere with healing. If you've been diagnosed with a stomach ulcer, start by talking with your doctor to see what's recommended for the type of ulcer you have.

Read more: 4 Ways to Exercise With a Stomach Ulcer and Tips to Avoid Getting Them

What Causes Stomach Ulcers

Stomach ulcers — also known as peptic ulcers — are sores on the lining of the stomach or duodenum (the first part of the small intestine), explains the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The most common symptom of stomach ulcers is a dull or burning stomach pain, but other potential symptoms of ulcers include bloating, feeling sick to your stomach, burping, vomiting, weight loss and a poor appetite, the NIDDK says.

Stomach pain from a stomach ulcer is quite specific, notes the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University. It usually starts between meals or late at night, when your stomach is empty, and lasts anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. It can improve after you eat food or take an antacid. It also comes and goes over a series of days or weeks.

NIDDK says that the two most common causes of a stomach ulcer are an infection caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria and overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin. Stomach ulcers can also be caused by rare tumors, but that's not common.

Other factors that may increase your risk for developing a stomach ulcer, according to the Cleveland Clinic, include a family history of ulcers, smoking, drinking alcohol regularly and having other diseases that affect the kidneys, liver or lungs.

In order to diagnose a stomach ulcer, your doctor typically would evaluate your symptoms to see if further testing is called for. According to the NIDDK, tests for a stomach ulcer include:

  • A stool or breath test to test for H. pylori.
  • An endoscopy to look for ulcers in your digestive system.
  • Standing or sitting in front of an X-ray machine and drinking barium, a chalky liquid that can help show if ulcers are visible.

How to Treat an Ulcer

The correct treatment for a stomach ulcer depends on what is causing it, according to the Mayo Clinic. For instance, if the ulcer is caused by H. pylori, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Other treatment options include medications that block or slow down the production of stomach acid or neutralize stomach acid.

There are also a number of lifestyle changes you can make to mitigate stomach ulcer symptoms. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you increase your intake of vitamin-rich foods, quit smoking, limit your intake of alcohol, dairy and spicy food, stop taking NSAIDs, add probiotic foods to your diet, control your stress levels and prioritize getting enough sleep.

Harvard Health Publishing estimates that an uncomplicated stomach ulcer can take up to three months to fully heal, while a duodenal ulcer takes about six weeks.

Can Exercise Worsen Stomach Ulcers?

If you find that your regular exercise routine causes stomach pain while you're recovering from an ulcer, try taking a break until your ulcer has healed.

"In a known, already symptomatic ulcer, rigorous exercise could potentially aggravate symptoms," says Erik Polan, DO, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "But some studies have demonstrated that exercising routinely may decrease stomach ulcers. Exercise can improve stress and appears to keep your stomach in balance, leading to lower rates of Helicobacter pylori, bacteria commonly associated with certain ulcers."

Dr. Polan recommends speaking to your doctor to see if you can still exercise while recovering from a stomach ulcer, and stresses that someone with an ulcer should "continue other healthy lifestyle choices like minimizing and/or eliminating alcohol, not using any tobacco and staying away from aggravating foods." Foods that can aggravate an ulcer include alcohol, dairy, citrus, coffee and spicy foods.

Read more: What Can I Eat and Drink With a Peptic Ulcer?

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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