Fight IBS with Fitness

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that's not always discussed openly, but is surprisingly common. Recent estimates state that 10 to 15 percent of the general population experiences uncomfortable and painful IBS symptoms like cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. No one knows exactly what causes it, but if you are someone who suffers from IBS, you know that it has a major impact on your everyday life. Even without knowing the specific causes of IBS, there are specific things you can do to help prevent flare-ups and alleviate symptoms.

Research has shown that exercise can improve your quality of life if you suffer from IBS. A study published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that a higher BMI was more likely to be associated with gastrointestinal (GI) pain, whereas a healthy diet and regular physical activity were associated with fewer GI symptoms.

So how does exercise help if you suffer from IBS? Most doctors consider stress to be one of the triggers of irritable bowel symptoms. Although stress doesn't directly cause IBS, it can aggravate the condition. Exercise helps relieve both physical and mental stress. Physically, exercise warms and relaxes cold, tight muscles. During exercise, the bowel typically quiets down because blood is being pumped to other parts of the body. If you exercise regularly and become more physically fit, the bowel may tend to relax even during non-exercise periods.

In terms of mental stress, many doctors believe that IBS has psychological origins. When someone is under a great deal of stress, they are more prone to mental strain, which can then lead to physical problems. Exercise helps tackle the psychological origins of stress by triggering the release of endorphins (brain chemicals that improve mood and promote a sense of well-being). Stress has not been proven to cause IBS, but it can certainly make it worse. That's why it's so important to keep your stress levels under control.

So what kind of exercise is best for someone who has IBS? Although physical activity in general will help, certain activities have been shown to reduce stress levels:
  • Yoga reduces stress by encouraging deep, rhythmic breathing. It also promotes relaxation by increasing the flow of blood and oxygen to each part of the body. 
  • Stretching exercises stimulate receptors in the nervous system that decrease the production of stress hormones. In addition, stretching exercises release tension and increase blood flow to the muscles.
  • Pilates connects the mind, body, and spirit, which can help you manage stress more effectively. Its goal is to improve flexibility and strength, creating a balance between the two. Participants gain and develop body awareness through different exercises and stretches, which target specific muscle groups. 
  • Activities that you enjoy. The more you like what you're doing, the greater the chances that you'll stick with it and feel good about exercising!
It's always more enjoyable if you can exercise when you're feeling your best. Although it's counterintuitive to think that you should exercise when your IBS symptoms are causing discomfort, a little bit of activity may actually help. Because exercise pumps blood to other parts of the body other than the digestive system, exercise can help relieve digestive distress. Also try to schedule your exercise at least a few hours after your last meal. Before exercising, avoid eating foods you know cause a flare up in your symptoms. It's important to listen to your body, but sometimes when exercising is the last thing you want to do, it's the thing that will help the most!

Regular exercise is going to make you more physically fit and give you a good way to deal with stress. Both of these benefits are helpful when fighting the symptoms of IBS. The better you feel, the less likely it is that IBS will negatively impact your quality of life. So start exercising and start feeling better today!
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Member Comments

I don't have this, but a few friends have IBS and I would like to learn as much as I can about it. Report
Thank you Report
thanks for sharing Report
Thank you! Report
thank you Report
Good article. Report
I can empathize with all of you have had IBS all my life and stress and anxiety really effect mine I have good days but bad days also after I had my gall bladder removed several years ago this really seemed to aggravate my IBS even more I take probiotics they help some exercising seems to help also I reAlly have to avoid dairy products I really don’t know what improves this health issue other than it can be very frustrating and can really impact the overall way your day or days go it can cause you to miss out on so many activities wish I had some words of encouragement maybe they will eventually research this condition and help to find better ways to manage it Report
An excellent article! Thanks! Report
I suffer from IBS so I am in complete agreement with the effect of mental attitude on your stress and IBS-- Report
Have had real improvement following the low FODMAP diet. Still working on figuring out specific triggers but after 4 years of undiagnosed IBS follwing food poisoning I feel signicantly better after only a few months. Report
great help thank you Report
Thanks! Report
I couldn't figure out how to edit my comment, but I must add this too. I have found a 8g fiber juice (like Bolthouse Farms) to be helpful as well. I cannot handle the fiber from too many veggies and fruits, but I seem to tolerate the juice well. Report
My doctor and I believe that my IBS-D was triggered by an overuse of antibiotics. We moved to NC in my 30's and it is an allergy capital. I had a lot of sore throats, and despite always testing negative for strep, my doc still prescribed an antibiotic. At 40, I ended up with IBS. I just had a colonoscopy at age 45. I am fine, except for the IBS-D. The Gastro has me taking probiotics and it is helping. I am not "cured," but am doing better. Report


About The Author

Jen Mueller
Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach and medical exercise specialist, with additional certifications in behavior change, functional training and senior fitness. She is also a RRCA-certified running coach. See all of Jen's articles.