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The relationship between exercise and gastro esophageal reflux disorder (GERD) is a tricky one. For some people, moderate exercise can help reduce GERD symptoms and benefit the body in countless other ways too. In a 2004 study in the gastroenterology journal Gut, people who engaged in frequent physical exercise experienced fewer symptoms of GERD than those who did not. And regular exercise is one of the most effective strategies for keeping your weight at a healthy level, which may help to control GERD symptoms. Research reported in The American Journal of Gastroenterology showed that excess body weight increases a person's risk of GERD symptoms. Obese people (defined as a body mass index greater than 30) were 2.5 times more likely to have reflux symptoms or esophageal erosions than people with "normal" BMI's (between 18.5 and 24.9). They were also nearly three times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than those with a healthy body weight.
Exercise benefits your health in countless ways, and may even reduce the incidence of GERD symptoms. But for some people, especially those participating in intense workouts, exercise can actually worsen symptoms. But no expert would recommend that you trade in your sneakers for fleece slippers in the interest of warding off GERD. The benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks and discomforts of acid reflux. Rather than ditching your workouts, just follow a few simple guidelines to get fit with GERD.
Allow time for digestion. The pressure of a full stomach alone can be too much for the esophageal sphincter to handle. But when you add the jostling of exercise into the mix, you’ve got trouble. Wait at least two hours after meals before you start exercising, and keep in mind that some people (or some meals) may need even longer.
Choose your foods wisely. Certain foods require longer for digestion—especially foods high in fat. For your pre-workout meal, opt instead for foods high in carbohydrates and low in fat and protein. Also try to avoid foods that are known heartburn triggers. You'll still need to allow plenty of time for digestion (see above).
Don’t forget your water bottle. Water can boost your energy levels by hydrating you, while also aiding in digestion.
Lower the intensity level. Workouts like jogging and high-impact aerobics cause the stomach contents to jostle around more, increasing acid reflux symptoms and discomfort. For some people, "smoother" workouts like biking, rollerblading, and strength training, or lower intensity workouts like yoga and walking may be the solution. Some people report an increase in symptoms when lying down, so you may want to avoid exercises that require this position, such as bench presses, Pilates, certain yoga postures, and swimming.
Take your meds. For some people, following all of the above recommendations still won't alleviate symptoms. Talk to your doctor and find out if medication is an appropriate next step.
GERD symptoms like heartburn and chest pain are usually indistinguishable from the pain and symptoms of serious heart problems due to the fact that the same nerves are involved. Doctors encourage everyone to take all forms of chest pain seriously. If you experience chest pain, during exercise or not, get checked out by a doctor.
Remember that every body is unique—what works for one person may cause problems for the next. If you are suffering from GERD, it may take a little trial and error until you find the workout that works for you.
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.
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