IBS Exercises: The best options for Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Is exercise good for irritable bowel syndrome (or its root causes)? What IBS exercises work best? Can too much exercise trigger IBS symptoms? These are just a few of the questions I regularly get from clients who are completing a gut healing protocol. It’s something I struggled with on my own journey and is something I’m passionate about educating my clients and readers on. And while IBS itself should not be considered a real diagnosis, the symptoms and impact of exercise experienced by those 'diagnosed' are very real. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years when it comes to exercise and IBS symptoms.
What is the link between exercise and IBS?
The short answer is that a lot of my clients suffering from IBS symptoms aren’t otherwise ‘unhealthy’. Often their friends and family consider them to be healthy based on all the positive lifestyle choices they make. Things like eating healthy, taking supplements and yes, exercising regularly.
But as their GI symptoms worsen, unexplained weight (body fat) gain is an unfortunately common side effect of IBS. This means sufferers often up the frequency, intensity or duration of exercise routines to try and overcome the problem. The ‘calories in vs. calories out’ myth we were fed for so long is still deeply ingrained - it certainly was for me.
It was only after I found myself hitting the gym (hard) more than 5 times a week with heavy weights and cardio sessions in addition to eating a very ‘clean’ diet, all the while my symptoms worsening and body fat increasing, that I realised that exercise might be making my IBS worse. And with that light-bulb moment, my understanding about the true connection between IBS and exercise had begun.
The evidence for exercising with IBS
We all know that physical exercise is an extremely important part of living a healthy, balanced life. This includes 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).
Muscle contractions during exercise is thought to release anti-inflammatory myokines, helping to block the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines produced by visceral fat (fat around the middle). It is these cytokines that contribute to the onset of inflammatory bowel disease and other GI conditions.
Why IBS exercises can trigger symptoms
There is a reason that gut distress, such as cramping, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, vomiting and GI pain are common among athletes during competition and training. When it comes to exercise, more is not always better.
Like most things in life, there’s a happy medium. And so it is with IBS exercises for optimal gut function and healing. 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.
In a nutshell, too strenuous exercise is linked to dysregulated cortisol (stress hormone), immune system suppression (around 80% of the immune system is in the gut) and intestinal hyperpermeability (leaky gut). None of which are good for IBS sufferers.
The key thing to remember when trying to overcome gut dysfunction is that exercise ONLY works if it’s not an added stressor. What we learnt from these lab mice is that if exercise puts too much stress on the body, it can make GI symptoms worse.
Chronic Cardio might not be such a good idea
While I like to focus on whether exercise is stressful to the individual - not everyone's the same after all - there are some types of exercise that I recommend avoiding while trying to overcome IBS. The biggest one is chronic steady-state cardio type activities like long distance running and long-distance bike riding. Just google “runner’s trots” if you’ve never heard of the connection between long distance running and diarrhoea.
It’s only a rough guide, but I generally consider exercise routines that require over 80% heart rate for 30 minutes or more to sit in this ‘chronic cardio’ space. It’s different for different people, but when you realise that exercising more isn’t the solution to your symptoms, you’ll likely be less motivated to pound the pavement (or treadmill) for hours on end.
What IBS exercises work best for healing?
If chronic cardio is not a great IBS exercise option, what counts as ‘moderate to light’ exercise, that is supposedly beneficial for gut function? I like to think of these IBS exercises as focused on movement, rather than heart-rate. If an activity allows you to move your body for 20+ minutes, without putting stress on your joints or heart-rate for long periods, you’ll likely be onto a winner.
My favourite recommendations, all with reported positive outcomes when it comes to gut healing (both in literature and in my own clinical experience) are:
> Walking - especially when surrounded by nature (parks, forests, beach, etc).
> Pilates - practices with a focus on postural control rather than high intensity movement.
> Yoga - practices with a focus on stretching, breathing and balance.
So if you are currently pounding the pavement on long runs, hitting up exhausting gym classes or sweating up a storm in more intense forms of yoga (e.g. hot vinyasa), you have my full permission to relax. Try slowing down and engaging in more healing-friendly exercise options that won’t exacerbate your symptoms.
And while I’ve said this before in other blogs, it’s worth repeating here: no, for those with IBS, cutting back on stressful exercise won’t make you fat. It’s actually the over-training that is likely, along with the gut dysfunction and hormone imbalances, fueling fat-loss resistance. I’ve had clients cut back from four to one gym session a week during a protocol and finally lose that stubborn 10kg around the middle.
Keep moving, without the stress
Don’t take this advice as an excuse to sit around on the couch all day in the name of ‘healing’. Movement is a key component of gut and overall health and healing, after all. Just take the stress out of exercise in the short-term and you’ll likely feel a lot better for it. Drop the chronic cardio and stick with IBS exercises that have proven positive outcomes like walking, yoga and pilates.