Co-authored by intern Aubrey Baker.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can decrease quality of life because of how symptoms can deter you from enjoying daily activities and routine, which can lead to frustration and anxiety, and thus more symptoms. The majority of IBS symptoms (bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea, etc.) are caused by stress or consumption of trigger foods. One way to relieve mental, physical, and emotional stress is by exercising. To learn more about stress and IBS, click here. Unfortunately, some forms of exercise can create distress on the digestive system. In general, high intensity exercises may aggravate symptoms and lead to unwanted flare-ups, but low intensity or shorter duration workouts can be beneficial. Learn more here!
Here is a list of exercises to avoid until symptoms are controlled:
HIIT and bootcamp-style workouts (especially longer duration ones like CrossFit)
Running or competitive cycling/spinning (long duration or high intensity)
To improve IBS and symptoms, focus on gentle movements that will increase your heart rate and allow you to create a positive experience for your body and digestive system. For an added bonus, take your movement outside!
Yoga can be a very versatile workout. Yoga sequences can be altered to whatever level or comfort state you are experiencing. With yoga sequences and classes, you are given the power to be in complete control of how long you hold poses or how far and deep you lean into positions. The stretches and controlled breathing relax your body and mind, letting go of both mental and physical stress.
Ways to incorporate yoga:
Local yoga studio
Online yoga videos
Yoga in the park
Sunrise yoga class
Acro yoga with a partner
Barre and Pilates
Like yoga, barre and pilates practices are alignment-based, low intensity, and focus on breath. These can all help build muscle tone, improve flexibility, and reduce stress hormone levels. My personal favorite practice is Barre3 because it incorporates low intensity movement that also lifts the heart rate like crazy, all while focusing on body-positive language to empower you to feel amazing in your body. I’m a little biased as an instructor, but I truly do believe in this company for IBS management.
Ways to incorporate barre and pilates:
Try out a local studio or class at your gym
Stream workouts online or through a DVD
Tai Chi is a prime example of gentle movement that is designed to relieve stress. Although, in the past this was used for self-defense practice, it has evolved into a graceful form of exercise that is mindful and gentle on the body. Tai Chi consists of slow and concentrated movements partnered with deep and intentional breathing. This practice, like yoga, is very versatile. You are in control of how deep you move, how long you hold a pose and how much you want your heart rate to increase.
Ways to incorporate Tai Chi:
Join a class in the park or at a studio
Follow a youtube video in the comfort of your own home
Connect to nature by practicing at the beach or in the forest
Walking and Jogging
Running can lead to stress in the body and can cause a release of epinephrine, which is part of the stress response. When this hormone is released it internally causes the body to work/react faster. This is problematic for people with IBS because when your body attempts to compensate this rush, it “skips” a couple of steps. The main step skipped, is the complete breakdown of nutrients, which causes bloating, flatulence, or constipation. This can also exacerbate spasms in the gut, which is problematic with IBS-D. Instead of running, try power walking or light jogging. Start off taking leisure walks and slowly work your way up to a power walk, where you heart rate is elevated and the muscles in your legs are firing.
Ways to incorporate power walking or jogging:
Join a walking group
Walk on a treadmill at your gym
Glow in the dark night walking in your community
Walk or jog with your dog
Take a walk around a nature trail
To increase resistant on your walk, go for a hike or create an incline on your treadmill
Dancing is a great way to release endorphins for a good mood, and increase your heart rate. Dancing activates muscles while relaxing the mind. The movement (when performed according to your body’s comfort level) can relieve stiff and achy joints, reduce muscle tension, and control anxiety by lifting the mood. Swaying along with the music and allowing yourself to express what you are feeling has been known to release pent up energy and stress.
Ways to incorporate dancing:
Join a dance class at a gym or local dance studio
Invite friends over for a dance party
Join a flash mob
Have a solo dance party with your favorite playlist blaring, Meredith Grey style
Swimming is a great workout that increases your heart rate without exerting a lot of stress on your body. According to the UCSB Science Line, when an object is placed in a fluid, the fluid presses on the object in all directions. The force that presses upwards is known as buoyancy. Buoyancy is what keeps you floating and “weightless” in the water. For a lot of people when they feel weightless, their bodies relax. This sensation allows for a greater amount of movement and a decrease amount of restriction and resistance. Swimming elongates your muscles, by stretching and activating them. Stretching while strengthening your muscles can reduce the amount of inflammation and stiffness of your bones and instead, increases the protection which then releases stress on your body.
Ways to incorporate swimming:
Have a pool party
Take swim breaks while you’re on the lake with friends
Join water aerobics class
Teach your kids how to swim
Join a nauditorium’s swim membership
Swim laps at your local YMCA
The words bicycling and IBS together can cause panic. The constant up, down motion and swaying motion can cause digestive agitation and potentially lead to an unfortunate accident. Fortunately for you, there are ways to decrease the chances of this unfortunate accident from happening. Instead of working on increasing resistance, focus solely on your form and (cautiously) contracting your muscles. Before going on a ride, it might be beneficial to scope out trails that have a lower amount of hills and bumpy areas. If desired, purchasing a softer seat cushion could be beneficial to you.
Ways to incorporate cycling:
Nature trails or parks
Bicycle around your neighborhood
Start a bicycle club with your friends or neighbors
Resistance training with weights is a great way to build muscle and support stronger bone density. This is important to prevent injuries, as well as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis as we age. Very heavy weight lifting and weight lifting with extreme bursts of movement may increase cortisol in the body and make symptoms worse. However, moderate weight training that is controlled and focused may be able to lower cortisol and increase blood flow, improving symptoms.
Ways to incorporate weight lifting:
Work with a personal trainer that understands the need to support the gut
Try a low-intensity resistance training group exercise class
Work with resistance machines and moderate weights in your local gym
Buy moderate handheld weights to work out at home
It is important to stay optimistic when finding exercise that best suits your body and your symptoms. These gentle movement ideas are not definite cures and should be altered to fit your comfort level. As always, consult with your doctor before participating in exercise. Nutrition is not the cause of IBS, but is an inflammatory factor and should included when adjusting your lifestyle to decrease symptoms. It’s important to know your specific food triggers so you are not restricting foods that your body can tolerate. The best way to determine your triggers is through the low FODMAP diet. You can work with me 1-on-1 in my 12 week structured IBS Management Program. This will guide you through the FODMAP diet to identify your specific triggers, as well as lifestyle modifications that impact IBS, to establish a life free of restriction caused by IBS. You can apply for a free consultation here. If you live outside of the U.S., my Low FODMAP Diet E-Course may be a better fit for you! Enroll here! I hope this post has shed some light on the importance of gentle movement and listening to your body when working with IBS digestive stress. Let us know other ways you incorporate gentle moving into your routine in the comments below!