We all know exercise is good for health, right? It lowers our risk for diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. It can lower our stress levels and help us manage anxiety and depression. It helps us build muscle that will protect our bodies as we move, and helps us build stronger bones that will age well.
The benefits don’t stop there. Exercise is also a vital piece of managing IBS, and is one of the core components of my IBS Management Program. The important thing to note, though, is that all exercise is not created equal for IBS management.
Studies have shown that an increase in moderate exercise (30-60 minutes/day) can improve IBS symptoms, as well as other quality of life aspects of the disorder, including fatigue, depression, and anxiety. There’s a short-time benefit, especially in anxiety and depression, but a long term benefit was also detected, as long as the activity is consistent. The benefit from exercise and IBS symptoms is most likely due to its ability to lower stress, which is a major trigger of symptoms. However, exercise can also directly affect the gut. Increased blood flow can help with gut motility, which can prevent constipation. Also, body movement may help you naturally release gas to alleviate bloating.
One type of exercise that has been thoroughly studied is yoga. Yoga is shown to reduce the activation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which can function abnormally in those with IBS and lead to gut motility dysfunction, causing constipation and/or diarrhea. The breath component in yoga practice is shown to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress-related ailments.
Women with IBS may also be at risk for pelvic floor prolapse, which could be related to constipation. This can also be related to urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction, which can all lead to decreased quality of life. Physical therapy could be helpful if you struggle with any of the above functions. You can also find exercises that strengthen the pelvic floor, including barre and pilates.
What doesn’t work?
If exercise improves symptoms, more exercise should be even better, right? Not necessarily. Excessive or high intensity exercise may actually trigger IBS symptoms, due to increased stress on the body. This would include exercises like Cross Fit, intense cycling or running, and HIIT. If you have already been doing workouts like these, you may not have to exclude them completely. Check in with how your body reacts after a workout, then try switching it up every other day or so to see how you respond to less intense movement. If you are new to working out, don’t start with these types of exercise. As you slowly increase activity, you may find that a day or two of this type of movement can be enjoyed. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so be mindful about what works best for you.
Taking everything we know about exercise and IBS, here are my simple tips:
Start small and increase slowly. If you’re new to working out, start with a simple yoga class or walking. Slowly increase the duration and intensity of your exercise. This will help you find movement you enjoy, as well as notice what amount of movement works best for your symptoms.
Focus on breath. We know deep and intentional breathing is key to reducing anxiety and depression, so find exercises that incorporate this into their practice. Usually practices like yoga, pilates, and barre will focus on this, but you may also find other studios or workouts that incorporate this into their workouts. You can also add a meditation practice to the end of your favorite workout or your daily walk to get this benefit.
Don’t do things you hate. If you hate the workout you are currently doing, find something else that you do enjoy. This one is simple. If you hate it, you’re not likely to keep it going long term. Sustainable habits are key for lifelong IBS management, so say goodbye to the things that aren’t enjoyable, and give yourself time to find what is. It may mean switching studios or online platforms, or switching forms of exercise. I also like to note here that it’s important to find instructors and trainers that are positive and maintain positive self-talk. Body image can be a struggle with IBS already, so nobody needs to hear that they need to “work for” or “earn” their food, or be told to seek weight loss through exercise. Instead, find language that is focused on caring for the body.
Stay hydrated and feed your body. The more you move and sweat, the more water your body will need to prevent dehydration. Keep this in mind, and if you can’t handle large amounts of water at once, slowly increase your intake before and after the workout. It’s also important to give your body the nutrients needed to support and recover from the workout. Eat balanced meals and add in snacks, if needed. Focus on protein and carbohydrate sources afterwards.
Resources and Recommended Workouts
If you have no idea where to start, or if you’re ready to try out new forms of movement, try out these different workouts. These can be done at home, which is a huge bonus if you’re busy or on a tighter budget.
Barre3. You can find a local studio, or try out Barre3 Online. I’m slightly biased about this one because I am an instructor, but it has been a game changer for my IBS management. This workout combines full-body movement to strengthen muscles, with pilates-style movement to improve strength in your core and pelvic floor. Breath is always a focus, and the movement is low-impact, which means it’s more gentle for your gut. You can modify any workout or take it up a notch to get that heart-pumping sweat you crave. Oh, and the instructors are all super body positive, so you’ll never leave a workout feeling bad about your body. Win-win-win. Click here to try it out and get $10 off your first month!
TMAC Fitness. This online workout platform contains 20 minute workouts that range from beginner to advanced, and they recently started adding yoga classes. Each workout ends with a brief meditation to calm the mind and connect you to your breath. No equipment needed, so this can be done anywhere, anytime. Click here to get a free 15 day trial!
A local yoga class! If you’re new to yoga, I recommend trying a local class before moving on to online class options. Working with an instructor in person will help you learn the postures and ensure alignment is correct to prevent any injuries. My favorite yoga studios in Nashville include Hot Yoga of East Nashville, Sumit’s Yoga, and Shakti Yoga.
For meditation, try the Headspace app. They have guided meditation sessions, ranging from 3-10 minutes. You can choose a basic meditation session, or a themed session with a specific focus. If you are new to meditation and breath practice, this app is extremely helpful. Click here to try out their meditation basics course for free!