How Exercise Can Help With IBS
Photo Credit: Jacob Ammentorp Lund /

Increasing Activity to Decrease Digestive Distress

There haven’t been many controlled studies on exercise for IBS, but there’s a good deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that regular activity can change things for the better. Weight control is just the tip of the iceberg: from better sleep to less pain, exercise can improve your digestive problems in ways you might not have considered.

Of course, exercise is not always easy, and IBS brings some extra challenges. The key to a fitter body and more manageable IBS is to find the right exercise for you, and that requires some attention to your unique mind, body and symptoms. Begin with a better understanding of how activity helps, and then look into which sort of activity best matches your needs.

The Main Benefits of Exercise

Everyone gets a different set of rewards from living an active lifestyle, but IBS patients can benefit in a few distinct, and important, ways:

Stress Relief

When you live with a chronic condition, stress is one of your biggest enemies. It can reach into every corner of your life, and disrupt all the hard work you’ve put into helping your body.

Your intestines are full of nerves that respond to different messages in your body. When you’re in a state of stress, these nerves can disrupt digestion and cause pain. For those who live with IBS, the nerves in the colon are even more sensitive to stress, and that makes it crucial to focus on relaxation.

Heart-pumping exercise is one of the quickest and easiest routes to stress relief, and the effects continue long after the workout ends. In the end, the more you exercise, the less stress you live with, and the less your digestive tract will suffer.

Emotional Boost

Any IBS patient knows that the symptoms may be physical, but the consequences are also emotional: anxiety, depression, isolation and poor self-esteem threaten your ability to take control and be proactive in your disease management.

Exercise releases endorphins, decompresses the body, and generally improves your sense of wellbeing, which is a big step in the right direction. After a few weeks of working out, you’ll probably notice that your moods are more balanced, you’re generally happier, and the stress you do face is far easier to manage.

Intestinal Help

Exercise motivates your digestive tract in a few ways. Not only does it increase the speed and efficiency of your digestive processes, but it helps to push gas out of your body instead of trapping it uncomfortably inside. If your IBS leaves you constipated most of the time, you could notice a huge difference once you get moving.

Doctors are still studying why exercise seems to benefit IBS, but there are a couple of popular theories:

  • Endorphins. When you exercise, your brain flushes your body with endogenous endorphins, which are your body’s natural pain relievers, and could calm digestive symptoms.
  • Sleep quality. Another thought centers on improvements in sleep patterns. It’s no secret that exercise brings noticeable improvement in sleep, and more restorative sleep will help your whole body function better. In fact, studies have shown that IBS symptoms are generally worse following a restless night.
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Which Exercise is Best for IBS?

Aerobic activity is thought to bring more benefits than static strengthening, like weightlifting, but there’s a lot to be said for purposeful, slow-paced movement. While aerobic activity burns off steam and maintains your overall fitness level, meditative exercises that focus on breathing and control will strengthen your muscles and teach you how to relax. The best exercise routine will combine both types of workouts.

Hiking or Walking

Simple, straightforward and low-impact, walking may be the best way to get into shape, especially if you haven’t been particularly active in the past. Start with short distances, and add a few extra minutes each time you go out for a walk. If you’re not sure how your stomach will react, you may want to break down your walk into two or three shorter stretches that you can spread throughout the day.


If you’re ready to up the exertion level and really break a sweat, try an aerobics class. Higher -impact and a higher heart rate means more cardiovascular benefits, and knowing that the facilities are close by can be an important comfort during your workout.


The emphasis on deep and balanced breathing makes yoga a perfect addition to your exercise regime. Hatha yoga is a good place to start, or look for a beginner yoga class that doesn’t involve too much “flow,” in order to get familiar with matching your breath to your movements. Stationary poses can be incredibly strengthening as well as relaxing.

Tai Chi

Incorporating meditative principles and gentle movement, the rhythm of tai chi stimulates coordination and relaxation. It’s almost like a slow and deliberate dance, and the transition to different poses and movements can keep things interesting as you focus on clearing your mind and relieving your stress.

You’ve likely heard that swimming and cycling are great low-impact exercises to try, but beware if your IBS symptoms tend to come on suddenly. Cycling can keep you in a hunched position over your handlebars, which can scrunch up your abdomen and put more pressure on your intestines. And swimming, though safe and easy on your joints, can make it more difficult to handle symptoms quickly — after all, a pool is not where you want to deal with an emergency situation.

When a Workout is a Bad Idea

You probably won’t feel much like exercising when your IBS flares up, which is good — there are a few reasons to take it easy when your gut isn’t cooperating.

If your IBS is diarrhea-predominant, vigorous exercise can speed up your digestive tract, which will only make matters worse. After a spell of loose bowel movements, you could also be dehydrated, and that’s never a good state for exercise, since sweat-inducing activity will drain your fluids even more.

If you’re constipation-prone, exercise can get things moving, but cramps and gas can make your movements very uncomfortable. In order to take some pressure off your digestive system, stick to lower-impact exercises with flowing movements rather than high-impact exercise that shocks or jars your body. Running, jumping or anything else that sends your body up in the air and down against the ground can jostle your stomach and intestines enough to cause problems.

Tailoring Your Routine to Your Body

There’s no simple answer when it comes to exercise for IBS, but there’s certainly a way to work it into your life, regardless of your symptoms. Be sure to listen to your body rather than stick to a pre-set schedule: your symptoms can change rapidly, and what you managed to do one week may not be in the cards the next week.

The best way to stay active without disrupting your system too much is to have an arsenal of exercises to call upon depending on how you feel. Take some time to find a range of fun and pleasant activities — some challenging, some much more mellow — and get comfortable with all of them so you can pick and choose what to do on any given day. The more options you have the more likely you’ll stay fit, comfortable, and happy.