Does exercise help IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, and altered bowel habits. IBS is estimated to affect 10-15% of the population worldwide, making it one of the most prevalent chronic medical conditions. While the exact causes of IBS are unknown, it is believed to involve a complex interaction between the gut, brain, and nervous system. Symptoms of IBS can range from mild to severe and often fluctuate over time. This fluctuation makes IBS a challenging condition to manage. Many IBS patients turn to lifestyle modifications like diet, stress management, and exercise to help control their symptoms. But does exercise really help IBS? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.

What is IBS?

IBS is classified as a functional gastrointestinal disorder. This means that while there are no observable physical changes to the bowel, there are issues with the way the gastrointestinal system functions. The primary symptoms of IBS include:

– Abdominal pain and cramping
– Bloating and gas
– Diarrhea and/or constipation
– Alternating bowel movement patterns
– Feeling of incomplete evacuation after a bowel movement
– Mucus in the stool

These symptoms arise due to abnormal motility (contractions) of the intestines, increased sensitivity of the nerves in the gut, and a disruption in the communication between the brain and the gastrointestinal system. Symptoms can range from mild to debilitating. While IBS does not cause permanent damage to the intestines, it can significantly impact quality of life.

What causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS is not known. Current theories suggest it results from a combination of factors including:

– Abnormal gastrointestinal motility – The muscles of the colon contract more readily in response to distension, causing diarrhea or constipation. There may also be issues with coordinated muscle contractions.

– Visceral hypersensitivity – Increased sensitivity of the nerves in the gut cause ordinary contractions to be felt more severely as pain and discomfort.

– Brain-gut axis dysfunction – Problems with communication between the brain and the enteric nervous system (nerves of the gut) can manifest as IBS symptoms. Stress can exacerbate this.

– Intestinal inflammation – Some research indicates low-grade intestinal inflammation may contribute to IBS in some patients.

– Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth – Excessive bacteria growth in the small intestine has been associated with IBS symptoms.

– Food sensitivities – Some patients have worse symptoms after eating trigger foods like dairy, wheat, excess fats, and certain sugars. The reasons are unclear.

While these factors may influence IBS development, symptoms also appear to be shaped by genetics, environment, and mental health. IBS can be triggered or worsened by high stress. There also appears to be a genetic component as IBS runs in families.


IBS shares some similarities with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but they are distinct conditions. The main difference is that IBD includes chronic intestinal inflammation that causes visible damage to the digestive system. The most common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. IBS does not cause inflammation or permanent structural damage.

Signs that point more towards IBD rather than IBS include:

– Unintended weight loss
– Digestive bleeding
– Persistent fever
– Anemia
– Family history of IBD

A doctor can help differentiate between IBS and IBD through tests like blood work, stool samples, and colonoscopies. Misdiagnosis between these two conditions is common so it is important to consult a doctor if you experience any gastrointestinal symptoms. Both IBS and IBD share challenges with abdominal discomfort and disrupted quality of life. Identifying the correct condition allows for the most effective treatment approach.

Common IBS treatment approaches

As there is no cure for IBS, treatment focuses on managing symptoms. A multifaceted approach is often needed. Common components of IBS treatment plans include:

– **Dietary changes** – Eliminating trigger foods and eating smaller, more frequent meals can improve IBS symptoms for some people. A low FODMAP diet is commonly recommended, but should only be done under the guidance of a registered dietitian.

– **Medications** – Certain prescription and over-the-counter medicines can be used for diarrhea, constipation, pain, and cramps. These include antispasmodics, laxatives, antidiarrheals, antibiotics, and low-dose antidepressants.

– **Probiotics** – Supplements containing beneficial bacteria may reduce bloating and flatulence for some IBS patients. More research is still needed on probiotic strains and dosage.

– **Stress management** – Techniques like meditation, yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness can help control stress and anxiety levels that influence IBS symptoms.

– **Regular exercise** – Staying active can help relieve stress and stimulate healthy bowel function. The impact of exercise on IBS symptoms will be explored more throughout this article.

While these interventions may provide relief, there is no singular solution that helps all IBS patients. A patient-centered approach, closely collaborating with healthcare providers, is key to identify the most effective management strategies for each individual.

How might exercise help with IBS?

Many IBS patients credit exercise with improving their IBS symptoms. But how exactly could physical activity provide relief? There are a few key mechanisms by which exercise may positively influence IBS:

**Improved motility and bowel regulation**

– Physical activity helps stimulate contractions within the intestines and colon, promoting better motility. This can help speed up transit time of stool through the digestive tract.

– Exercise is thought to improve neurotransmitter signaling involved with bowel functions. For example, serotonin plays a role in intestinal motility and perception of pain – both involved in IBS.

**Stress relief**

– Exercise is well established to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. This stress relief effect may be key for IBS, as stress exacerbates gut symptoms and alters bowel functions.

– Physical activity causes your body to release endorphins, your “feel good” neurotransmitters that relieve stress and pain perception.

**Anti-inflammatory effects**

– Some research indicates exercise can reduce markers of inflammation within the body. Lower systemic inflammation may translate to lower GI inflammation as well.

– Exercise improves blood flow and oxygen delivery, which promotes healing within the intestines.

**Psychological benefits**

– Being active can boost self-esteem, mood, and an overall sense of wellbeing. This influences IBS symptom experience and tolerance.

– Simply taking time to exercise may provide a needed distraction from intestinal symptoms.

So in theory, exercise shows promise for alleviating many IBS contributing factors. But what does the research show about real benefits for IBS patients?

Exercise and IBS research findings

A growing number of studies have investigated the impact of exercise interventions on IBS symptom severity and quality of life scores. While research remains limited, most findings point towards physical activity being advantageous for IBS management:

– **A 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis** looked at 10 randomized controlled trials on exercise and IBS. It found that exercise significantly improved overall IBS symptom scores and health-related quality of life scores. Aerobic exercise provided the most benefit.

– **A 2015 randomized trial** had IBS patients perform moderate continuous exercise or interval training for 12 weeks. Both groups had significantly reduced IBS symptom scores vs the control at the end of the study. Interval training provided greater benefit for relieving abdominal pain and bloating.

– **A 2014 study** had women with IBS complete yoga classes 2 times per week for 2 months. The yoga group had significantly reduced IBS symptom severity and anxiety by the end of the intervention period. Quality of life also improved.

– **A 2001 study** examined walking for exercise at least 3 times per week for 12 weeks in IBS patients. Walking significantly improved bowel symptom scores, especially for relieving constipation and diarrhea. Anxiety scores also decreased.

While most research supports a benefit of physical activity for IBS, a few studies have found mixed results:

– A 2012 study did not find a significant difference in IBS symptoms scores between participants who exercised regularly vs non-exercisers. Both groups had a similar IBS disease course over 1 year.

– A small 2000 study found no improvement in IBS symptoms, abdominal pain, or quality of life after a 12 week walking program. Though subjects enjoyed the intervention and had less tension and depression.

Overall, most research suggests regular exercise can reduce the severity of symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, irregular BMs, stress, and anxiety in many IBS sufferers. Positive impacts on quality of life are also commonly reported. Still, response does appear variable between individuals. More research is needed to clarify optimal exercise approaches.

Best types of exercise for IBS relief

Aerobic activities like walking, swimming, cycling, and jogging appear most beneficial for IBS based on current research findings. There are a few reasons aerobic exercise may have an edge:

– Gets the body moving and stimulates intestinal contractions to improve motility and transit time.

– Helps manage weight, as excess fat can worsen IBS symptoms.

– Provides psychological benefits and endorphin release for stress relief.

– Typically accessible exercise options that are easy to incorporate regularly.

Yoga also shows promise for IBS patients, given its stress relieving effects and focus on body awareness. The mindfulness involved may help alter visceral pain perception. However, more research is needed comparing yoga to traditional aerobic training.

While less studied, anaerobic exercises like strength training may offer advantages too. Building abdominal and pelvic floor strength could provide more support to the intestinal tract and aid bowel regulation. This is speculative though and requires investigation.

For most, a balanced routine that includes both aerobic activity and some strength/stretching training is likely optimal. Focus on whatever types of exercise you find achievable and enjoyable as those are easiest to maintain long-term. Activities can be adjusted as needed to work around IBS symptom fluctuations.

IBS exercise tips and precautions

If you have IBS and want to start exercising, there are some important factors to consider:

– **Start slow** – Steadily increase exercise duration and intensity. This allows your body to adjust and minimizes GI discomfort.

– **Avoid trigger foods** – Eat a light, low-fiber, low-fat meal 2-3 hours before exercising to prevent problems.

– **Stay hydrated** – Drink adequate fluids during and after exercise to prevent dehydration worsening constipation.

– **Know bathroom locations** – When exercising away from home, note where bathrooms are located in case urgent needs arise.

– **Wear loose clothing** – Tight clothing can aggravate abdominal discomfort.

– **Pay attention to your body** – Note if certain postures, intensities or types of exercise exacerbate symptoms. Adjust your routine accordingly.

– **Talk to your doctor** – Check with your physician prior to starting any new exercise program, especially with severe IBS.

Be aware that some people do report an initial worsening of IBS symptoms when beginning a new exercise regimen. This adjustment period usually resolves within a few weeks. You may need to dial back intensity or duration temporarily until your body adapts. Exercise with IBS is very personalized so tune into your own symptom responses.

Other lifestyle measures to support exercise

To maximize the benefits of exercise for IBS relief, incorporate other positive lifestyle habits including:

– Following any dietary modifications recommended by your doctor

– Practicing stress management techniques like meditation, yoga, CBT, or Tai Chi

– Getting enough sleep 7-9 hours nightly

– Staying well hydrated with water and electrolyte drinks

– Taking any doctor recommended IBS medications and supplements

– Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol

– Listening to your body – don’t overexert yourself

Adjusting these self-care strategies alongside regular exercise can provide optimal outcomes. But check with your healthcare provider before making significant diet, supplement, or medication changes. Small, gradual steps are best when applying lifestyle modifications.

Putting it all together: An IBS exercise routine

If you’re sold on the benefits of exercise for IBS, it’s time to put together your personalized routine. Use this step-by-step guide:

1. **Talk to your doctor** – Get medical clearance, especially if new to exercise or have other health conditions. Discuss any modifications needed.

2. **Start low, go slow** – Begin with easier 10-20 minute workouts 1-2x a week. Slowly increase duration, frequency and intensity over several weeks. Build at a pace your body can handle.

3. **Pick your activities** – Choose exercises you enjoy and can do regularly like walking, swimming, yoga, cycling, light weights, etc. Mix up aerobic, strength and flexibility training.

4. **Listen to your body** – Note when symptoms flare up and adjust your routine as needed. For example, switch to lower impact exercise during a constipation flare up.

5. **Exercise before eating** – Doing workouts before meals tends to be better tolerated.

6. **Stay hydrated** – Sip water during and after exercise. Electrolyte drinks can help if you tend perspire heavily.

7. **Eat a light meal after** – Have a small meal with protein, smart carbs and fat to refuel without upsetting your stomach.

8. **Stick with it** – Consistency is key, even if starting with short sessions. Schedule exercise into your routine and keep showing up!

Starting an exercise program for IBS does require some trial and error. But being patient, listening to your body, and adjusting activities to stay comfortable will set you up for success. The more consistent you can be with workouts, the greater potential benefits for better symptom control and quality of life.

The bottom line on exercise and IBS

Research increasingly supports the use of exercise as a beneficial component of a comprehensive IBS management plan. Regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, appears helpful for relieving a range of symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, bowel irregularity, anxiety and depression for many IBS sufferers. Both symptom severity and quality of life often show significant improvement.

However, response to exercise does vary on an individual basis. Factors like the type, intensity, and duration of activity, as well as an individual’s other lifestyle habits, likely impact outcomes. More research is still needed to provide detailed exercise prescriptions tailored to IBS subtypes and symptom patterns.

Nonetheless, exercise is safe for the majority of IBS patients and offers advantages beyond just IBS symptom relief. Being regularly active provides well documented benefits for long term health and chronic disease prevention. Starting an appropriate, personalized exercise program is worthwhile for most individuals with IBS. Just be sure to check with your doctor first and adjust activities based on your own symptom responses. Partnering some form of regular exercise with other healthy lifestyle modifications provides a solid foundation for taking control of IBS.

Leave a Comment