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IBS and Exercise

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

Is your exercise routine supporting your IBS or triggering your IBS?

Regular exercise is considered an essential part of living a healthy lifestyle, so how could exercise make you feel worse? When it comes to IBS, some types of exercise can help with symptoms, but others can actually make symptoms worse.

The reality is, most people with IBS are already living healthy lifestyles, eating well and exercising regularly. But as gut symptoms worsen, unexplained weight gain often comes along with it. This can result in sufferers often up the frequency, intensity or duration of exercise routines to try and overcome the problem. But symptoms only continue to increase.

This blog post will focus on what types of exercise are best for IBS and which ones you may want to reconsider.

How exercise can make IBS symptoms worse

It is important to start this with a disclaimer and reiterate that exercise is very important for your health, including maintaining a healthy digestive system. Medical research indicates that moderate exercise has the potential to prevent inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and to improve gut barrier function (“leaky gut”).

However, when it comes to exercise and IBS, more is not always better. There is a reason that gut distress, such as cramping, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting and GI pain are common among athletes during competition and training. While not exercising enough is detrimental to your health, too much in terms of frequency, duration or intensity can also negatively impact your gut health and healing.

This is because exercise that is too strenuous can lead to dysregulated cortisol (stress hormone), immune system suppression (around 80% of the immune system is in the gut) and intestinal hyperpermeability (leaky gut). All of which can impact IBS sufferers.

The number one rule to follow if you’re trying to overcome gut issues, is that exercise is only helpful to you if it’s not an added stressor. If you leave a workout session feeling like you could take a nap, it’s probably not a good thing. If you leave feeling refreshed and ready to get on with your day, this is likely the perfect amount for you. Less is more.

One type of exercise which is notorious for triggering digestive symptoms is long-distance running or bike riding. Both of these have been associated with diarrhea episodes and can lead to cortisol dysregulation.

What types of exercise should IBS sufferers focus on?

If long-distance cardio is off the cards, what type of exercise is beneficial to focus on for IBS?

More than anything, you should be focusing on regular movement that doesn’t add stress to your body. Moving your body regularly is incredibly important for gut health, especially proper intestinal motility, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. 20 minutes of daily movement is all it takes, which could be in the form of a walk or light jog. Alternatively, yoga, Pilates and weight training are other good options. Avoid intense HIIT sessions and long cardio sessions which can cause cortisol dysregulation and be perceived as a stress to your body.

So if you are currently hitting the pavement for long runs, attending strenuous cardio classes, or doing excessive amounts of HIIT training and noticing that your IBS isn’t getting any better and your body isn’t responding the way you want it to, it may be time to reevaluate your exercise approach, and switch to some more restorative, relaxing forms of exercise to support your body as it focuses on healing.

Remember, less is more when it comes to exercise and IBS.

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