Summer is summering and people are out having fun — going to the beach, taking vacations, and attending food-centered parties. But if you have IBS, summer may bring some anxiety. Anytime you have a break in your routine, it can cause an IBS flare.
Sticking to what you know works as much as possible can help. If you’re on a therapeutic diet like the low FODMAP diet, it helps to plan ahead so you have foods you can eat. If you’re going to be away from home, it’s a good idea to pack an IBS survival kit to keep with you. And if you’re working with a practitioner, make sure to chat with them about strategies they recommend for your specific situation.
But sometimes when you’re out of your normal routine, you need some extra help to manage your IBS. That’s where non-food strategies come in. Last week we covered mindful eating — harnessing the power of your attention to improve your digestion. This week I want to talk about exercise and IBS. And yes, it’s scientifically proven to help.
Study after study has shown that exercise helps with IBS symptoms. Now, I’m not suggesting you compete in a triathlon. In fact, intense exercise can actually make symptoms worse. But moderate exercise is proven to have positive effects on IBS symptoms.
A study done in 2011 revealed that exercise reduced the severity of IBS symptoms, while people who participated in less physical activity tended to have more severe symptoms. And when researchers followed up with some of the participants in this study between 4 and 8 years later, they discovered that those who kept up their exercise habit experienced lasting positive effects on their IBS symptoms.
And this same study concluded that regular exercise also improved quality of life, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
We don’t have a definitive answer to this question. Researchers are still working on it. But it’s likely that exercise helps IBS in a few different ways:
What affects your brain also affects your gut. Your gut and brain are connected through brain chemicals and nerves. So stress can be a trigger for digestive issues. If you practice stress reduction techniques like exercise, it can improve your IBS symptoms as well.
Exercise can encourage a bowel movement. If you struggle with constipation, you’re probably ready to do just about anything to get things moving regularly. And while many people turn to home remedies and laxatives, moving your body can make a big difference.
Exercise can cause your body to release excess gas. This can improve the bloating and pain often associated with IBS.
Poor sleep can trigger a flare-up of your IBS symptoms. So getting enough rest is important. Improving your sleep by setting a bedtime, creating a nighttime routine, and stepping away from screens for the last hour or two before you turn in can all help. But don’t forget to add some exercise to the equation. Physical activity is known to improve sleep also.
You’ll want to skip the high intensity exercises that can cause emergency diarrhea. That’s the last thing you need if you have IBS. Stick to light and moderate exercise. Choosing something you actually enjoy doing will increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with it.
In 2018, participants in an exercise and IBS study were asked to walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes 3 times per week. And they saw significant improvement in both their IBS symptoms and their mood.
A 2020 study found that step count correlated to reduced severity in IBS symptoms. Quite literally, the higher the step count, the less severe the symptoms.
Walking is great at moving gas out of your system and reducing belly pain. And it’s a great exercise for mental health, especially if you get out in nature while you do it.
Cycling and swimming are both low impact, but they still raise your heartrate and work your muscles. Now, I’m not talking about a 20-mile bike race or competing in the 400 meter butterfly. But a moderate version of each of these exercises can be enjoyable, low impact, and helpful for your symptoms.
Yoga has been specifically studied for its positive effects on IBS symptoms. A 2019 study in Digestive Diseases and Sciences found that starting a yoga practice can reduce IBS symptoms, improve overall digestion, and reduce anxiety and depression.
Yoga involves connecting the breath, brain, and body with a series of active movements and stationary poses. Along with giving you the chance to move your body, yoga also strengthens the mind/body connection which can improve the way messages travel between your gut and your brain.
Gentle yoga is calming and mindful — so it’s checking the stress-reduction box too. It’s also great for stretching, which releases gas and reduces pain. Just remember to start off slow if you’re new to the practice of yoga. Look for classes labeled “beginner” or “gentle”.
You’ve heard it before, but I’ll repeat it anyway. Make sure to talk with your practitioner before you begin a new exercise program. And if you’re working with a dietitian or other provider who specializes in IBS, you can talk with them about which exercises make the most sense for you. Dietitians (like me) don’t just hand you a prescription. I take the time to talk with you about your lifestyle and concerns so we can address your IBS symptoms in a way that works best for you and your life.
I’m here to help when it comes to IBS and stomach issues. If you’re not ready for a personalized approach with 1:1 appointments, I have a couple of options for you.
If you just need a little extra help managing your IBS, the The IBS Resource Guide is a great place to start. It covers apps, supplements, and even packaged foods that can make your IBS journey a little easier.
Navigating IBS can be lonely and frustrating. And sometimes it helps to hang out with people who understand. If you’re looking for some support and community to give you ideas and answer your questions, I invite you to join my free Facebook community.