How Exercise Can Help with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

How Exercise Can Help Your IBS
Nutrition
Gut Health
Written By:
Chelsea Rae Bourgeois, MS, RDN, LD

When it comes to overall health, exercise deserves all the hype it gets. Regular physical activity can help improve bone health, cardiovascular health, strength, balance, mental health, and more. It also significantly supports our gut health, which may be especially beneficial for those living with irritable bowel syndrome or IBS.

IBS is a chronic medical condition affecting the large intestine. It’s often characterized by symptoms such as:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Cramping
  • Constipation or diarrhea (or both)
  • Excessive gas
  • Nausea

Since there isn’t an overwhelmingly clear cause associated with the onset of IBS, those living with the syndrome are left to treat the symptoms or live proactively to reduce the severity of flare-ups. Enter exercise. 

As the scientific evidence connecting regular exercise with improved IBS symptoms continues to grow, more people are prioritizing it in their non-drug IBS management strategies

So just how does exercise help IBS? In this article, we’ll explore how regular exercise can help those living with IBS and review some of the best exercises for IBS so you can incorporate them into your next workout. Let’s explore!

How Does Exercise Help IBS

Exercise can help improve IBS in a variety of ways:

Reducing Stress

All that stress you might be dealing with? It could be contributing to your IBS symptoms. Over recent years, scientific research has uncovered an intriguing connection between our gut microbiome and overall health- specifically as it relates to the gut-brain axis. 

As it turns out, the gut-brain axis consists of bidirectional communications between the central and enteric nervous systems and the gut, so much so that scientists have been able to link the cognitive and emotional centers of the brain with functions of the peripheral intestines.  

No wonder stress can be a trigger for IBS flare-ups. Thankfully, engaging in physical activity has been linked to an improved mood and reduced stress, which can ultimately lead to reduced IBS symptoms.  

Improving Sleep

Much like stress, poor sleep hygiene can trigger or worsen IBS symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night. If you occasionally fall short of that recommendation, you’re not alone.

But there are lifestyle habits, like regular exercise, that we can put into place to help promote good sleep. And the best part? Better sleep can translate to improved IBS symptoms. 

Increasing Gut Microbiota

The gut microbiome is comprised of trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria (good and bad), yeasts, and viruses. Research has found that physical activity outside of normal day-to-day living can help increase variation in the gut microbiota. And that’s a good thing!

Reduced gut microbiota diversity can be a signature marker of IBS, so increasing variation through exercise stands to reduce or improve IBS symptoms.

Encourages Bowel Movements

Exercise can help encourage bowel movements, which can, in turn, help ease your IBS symptoms. As your breathing and heart rate increase, your muscles naturally contract, including those in your intestines. Intestinal muscles that contract better can move stool out more efficiently.  

Best Exercises for IBS

According to the latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the average adult should aim for approximately 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week. But which exercise is best for IBS?

Get excited! There are plenty to choose from! However, when it comes to choosing a workout that can help support IBS management, opt for low- to moderate-intensity activities, such as:

Walking

Walking is an effective, low-impact exercise that can help manage stress and encourage bowel movements. It doesn’t require any special equipment and can be appropriate for beginners and experts alike.

Yoga

Yoga, another low-impact exercise, can help promote mindfulness, centered breathing, and therapeutic stretching. In addition, research has shown that yoga can help improve the severity of symptoms of IBS, gastric motility, and physical functioning. 

Biking

Biking on the road or a stationary bike can be a great way to log a cardio workout without triggering IBS symptoms. While it’s considered an aerobic exercise, your legs are responsible for most of the movement. Plus, you have control over your exertion level, allowing you to moderate your heart rate.

Swimming

Leisure swimming can be an excellent moderate-intensity exercise that also stretches out your abdominal muscles, a welcomed relief on days when you feel bloated or crampy. 

Strength Training

Strength training can be a great way to build strength gradually without causing an IBS flare-up. Consider starting with weights you can comfortably lift and progressively increase the weight as you gain strength.

Exercises to Avoid With IBS

While most moderate-intensity exercises can be a great addition to IBS management, it’s important to note that some workouts may trigger flare-ups. High-intensity exercise can aggravate symptoms, and no one wants diarrhea after working out. 

As we exercise, our bodies direct blood away from the digestive tract and send it to other systems to support physical demands. For that reason, some of the worst exercises for IBS are those that demand maximum effort, even if only for a short period of time. 

Those living with IBS may need to avoid workouts like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), running, and CrossFit-type exercises. 

Don’t Forget to Stay Nourished

If you struggle with IBS, those sweat sessions you’re rocking can be integral to managing your symptoms and preventing flare-ups. So keep up the great work! Along with regular physical activity, it’s also essential to maintain a well-balanced diet.  

All bodies are unique, and no two IBS journeys are the same. Consider connecting with a registered dietitian nutritionist as you navigate meeting your specific nutrition needs, especially as you incorporate exercise into your routine. 

Click here to get in touch and book an appointment today!

Sources  

  1. Carabotti, M., Scirocco, A., Maselli, M. A., & Severi, C. (2015). The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Annals of Gastroenterology : Quarterly Publication of the Hellenic Society of Gastroenterology, 28(2), 203-209. Link
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 14). How much sleep do I need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from Link 
  3. Mailing, Lucy J.1; Allen, Jacob M.2; Buford, Thomas W.3; Fields, Christopher J.4; Woods, Jeffrey A.1,5. Exercise and the Gut Microbiome: A Review of the Evidence, Potential Mechanisms, and Implications for Human Health. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 47(2):p 75-85, April 2019. | DOI: 10.1249/JES.0000000000000183 
  4. Ghaffari, P., Shoaie, S. & Nielsen, L.K. Irritable bowel syndrome and microbiome; Switching from conventional diagnosis and therapies to personalized interventions. J Transl Med 20, 173 (2022). Link
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018. 
  6. D'Silva, A., MacQueen, G., Nasser, Y., Taylor, L. M., Vallance, J. K., & Raman, M. (2020). Yoga as a Therapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Digestive diseases and sciences, 65(9), 2503–2514. Link