Is Exercise Bad for IBS? — Exploring the Research
The relationship between exercise and digestive symptoms is complicated.
Sure, the research is overwhelmingly in favour of regular exercise to manage and improve general health. It reduces our risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers and so much more.
But the reality is that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) complicates everything. Even with something as ‘obviously’ beneficial as exercise, it’s just not all that clear.
Some exercises improve symptoms, while some worsen them. The nature, duration and intensity of the activity, and even the temperature of your environment, ALL have an impact on how your gut responds.
Today, we will clear things up by giving you a sneak peek into our program, Clairity. We will tell you what we share with our members—what exercises are safe, which to avoid, and how to use physical activity to your advantage in gut health recovery.
Spoiler alert: exercise is great.
The research on this stuff is impressive. Study, after study, after study show that regular physical activity protects us against a heap of negative health outcomes. It decreases our risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity, depression/anxiety and osteoporosis.
And as if that’s not enough, exercise yields specific benefits for those of us with IBS and IBD, too! In fact, research shows that regular exercise can improve symptoms. This includes reduced pain severity, pain frequency, bloating, uncomfortable bowel habits and overall life interference.
Physical activity is also a huge mood booster! Several studies show that those who frequently move their bodies experience better quality of life and less anxiety. And we know that strong stress management works serious wonders for the gut. Learning to better cope with life’s stressors leads to better digestive function and a stronger microbiome… which means less discomfort and fewer symptoms.
So, why all the confusion?
Too much of a good thing
Working out has an immediate effect on gut function. And not always for the better!
During exercise, blood that normally circulates within the gut is redirected to active muscles. This triggers inflammation and impaired gut motility, which can last long after your workout is over.
There’s also been recent research that looked at the impact of excessive exercise. What they found was that working out too much can seriously damage the cells of our intestinal walls. This leads to an immune response that triggers poor digestion, altered gut transit time (think diarrhea or constipation) and nutrient malabsorption. High temperatures make things worse, too!
How to minimize risk and get the most of exercise
I know what you’re thinking. What’s the deal?!
Guys, exercise is so good for you. All this conflicting information can be confusing, but physical activity is so crucial in normalizing negative digestive symptoms.
I know this research is a little scary, but it’s also so valuable. It allows us to define exactly what exercises are safe for IBS (and which to stay away from!).
Here’s what you need to know:
- Intensity: Stick to low to moderate intensity workouts such as walking, swimming and cycling
- Impact: Avoid high-impact motions such as running and jumping
- Duration: Do not workout for more than 2 hours and avoid endurance activities
- Hydration: Drink A LOT of water… Before, during and after workouts
- Food intake: Minimize FODMAPs and avoid overeating prior to exercise
- Temperature: Do not exercise in hot environments (>30 C or 86 F)
- Sports drinks: Be cautious of sports drinks and gels that contain sugar alcohols
How to start
I encourage anyone with a sensitive digestive system to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives. That means YOU!
I know it can be tough to get started. We are all so busy balancing everything else in our lives—work, family, social lives, and let’s not forget about all the time and energy it takes to figure out digestive issues!
But there’s great news. The research says to focus on gentle, low intensity activities. You have officially been granted permission to start small.
Here’s what I want you to do.
Pick an activity that feels good to you. Think walking, dancing, swimming, and cycling. Focus on something that’s achievable and that you’ll want to come back to.
Add it into your week, and start slow. Perhaps that means 10-15 minutes per day, three times a week. Only once you have mastered that, slowly increase your intensity and add a few extra minutes. If at any time you start to dread that activity, reassess.
Remember: you want to focus on activities that you enjoy, that feel good, and that you’ll want to repeat.
Exercise is super important for gut health.
It can be a challenge to find the time and energy to add exercise into your already hectic life. Trust me, as a busy mom of two, I get it! But we teach it as a key principle to good digestion in Clairity for a reason. It’s one of the most important strategies for emotional regulation and it makes a huge impact on gut function and symptom management.
But remember, IBS and digestive issues are incredibly complex! Physical activity on its own can only do so much. It is a combination of strategies that address food, movement, stress, probiotics and a whole lot more that will truly get your gut back to normal.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or confused, we are always here to help and support. We have worked with hundreds of IBS sufferers (myself included!), and we know how to bring all these strategies together to help you finally feel relief.
Wishing you well, always,
Stephanie Clairmont, MHSc, RD