Can you relate to a time in your life when you were more active and your IBS felt better? Or how about a time when you were doing lots of intense exercise and your gut didn’t feel great?
It’s clear from the research that IBS symptoms often improve with light or moderate to vigorous activities undertaken regularly . However, the concept of simply increasing movement generally by reducing sitting time may be enough for some people to receive benefits, particularly for constipation, pain and bloating due to gas build up in the bowel.
Walking, swimming, cycling, skipping, dancing and light jogging are popular exercises to recommend for people with IBS . Yoga is also great, as are compound weight training movements. Mowing the lawn, gardening and cleaning activities like mopping, vacuuming etc. are also great activities for people who may not be able to do more intense exercises due to injury.
Essentially, any full body exercise that utilises the abdominal muscles will stimulate movement of the bowel and other digestive muscles. This in turn can help speed up the time it takes for our fibre, waste, gas etc. to pass through. This can therefore be helpful for relieving constipation or bloating.
Exercise, mental health and IBS
Exercise is also very helpful for reducing and managing feelings of stress and anxiety. IBS and mood is strongly linked. It is well researched, and many IBS sufferers are likely to have experienced that at times of stress and anxiety, digestive issues and IBS symptoms can be worsened. When we are stressed our body is designed to divert blood (which contains oxygen and nutrients) away from the organs that aren’t directly needed at that time – for example to run away from danger or fight it. Our biochemistry can’t distinguish between situations for why our stress hormones have been raised, and biologically they’re designed to help us for fight or flight situations. Therefore, reducing stress hormones is a second mechanism in which regular exercise can assist in reducing IBS symptoms. Note that stress can appear different among individuals. For example, someone who spends a lot of time in their head worrying or when you feel like there’s not enough time in a day to get things done, may not feel they’re stressed as such but is likely fuelling their stress hormones.
Yoga is well known for its stress reducing benefits, due to a focus on deep breathing with gentle mobility movements.
The research into yoga improving IBS symptoms is promising, with some studies showing reduced symptoms among participants . This may be due to more than just improving emotional health, but also due to some movements being said to massage the internal organs and support the digestive system.
When to limit or avoid exercise with IBS
If symptoms are acutely bad, for example sharp abdominal pain, extreme bloating or diarrhea, you may not feel like exercising, or it may cause you more discomfort. Intense training that involves a lot of jumping may make some people feel uncomfortable, particularly if there is a lot of gas in the bowel. Perhaps try some indoor cycling or walking so you don’t have to move your core too much or wait until you are feeling better to get moving more.
High-intensity, vigorous exercise can generally lead to gastrointestinal distress and cause IBS symptoms, especially in hot temperatures and if the body becomes dehydrated. This is commonly seen among athletes . Long distance runners are particularly susceptible to diarrhoea and other gut symptoms. This can involve mechanical factors such as discomfort from organs bouncing around, neuroendocrine factors such as raising stress hormones, and ischaemic factors such as reduced blood flow to the gut. When we exercise, our digestive system receives less blood flow as a result of being diverted to other important areas of the body involved in exercise. This is why you may experience digestive upset when eating too soon before exercising. When our gut receives reduced blood flow for extended periods of time, it is susceptible to cellular death due to lack of oxygen and nutrients, cellular permeability (aka leaky gut), gut tissue inflammation, dysbiosis (reduced healthy bacteria living in the gut), and diarrhoea.
How much movement to aim for in a week
One study looking at the benefits of exercise for IBS sufferers saw significant improvements with all types of symptoms when including 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 times a week for 12 weeks . So this is a great goal. Note that literature suggests short bursts of high-intensity activities don’t appear to offer the same benefits as a steadier state activity does.
It’s beneficial for the body to be active every day, so the more walking and general movement, and less sitting you can do the better. Aiming for 2-3 days of rest and recovery with gently movement is important for people doing intense activity numerous times a week.
If you’re not currently active, try gradually increasing your activity to see how you feel. Whilst symptom improvement is common, it’s not guaranteed. Experiment to find what may work for you. If you don’t receive benefits, consult with your dietitian for diet and other lifestyle advice.
If you are already very active and continue to have IBS issues, you may benefit from reviewing the type and amount of activity you do. Consulting with an exercise professional would be helpful. Speaking to a Dietitian about your diet, particularly one experienced with the low FODMAPs diet will also be extremely helpful.
I hope this helps.
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