The Impact of Exercise on IBS

In this lesson we’ll be looking at how exercise can impact IBS symptoms

Regular exercise is a great way to care for your mind and body, but what about its effect on IBS?

Exercise and IBS

Several studies have found that increasing physical activity levels can improve IBS symptoms. There are several possible reasons that exercise can help:

1 – It reduces transit time

Exercise can shorten gut transit time (how long it takes for food to get from entry to exit!). To put it another way, exercise can help you poo regularly, by encouraging the movement of waste through the digestive system. This means exercise can be especially helpful if you have constipation predominant IBS. 

2 – It may reduce sensations of bloating

Bloating is a common symptom for many people with IBS, which is often triggered by the presence of gas. There’s no evidence that people with IBS make more gas than anyone else, but it seems to be more painful, due to increased sensitivity in the gut wall.

Some studies have found people with IBS have more trouble moving gas through the gut and this is where exercise may help. Gentle exercise reduces gas retention, and this has been shown to reduce the sensation of bloating in both healthy adults, and those with IBS.

3 – It has a positive effect on gut microbes  

Although it's not completely clear why, exercise is good for your gut bacteria. This could be down to changes in blood flow to the gut, or because exercise boosts anti-inflammatory compounds made by immune cells. These immune cells live close to your gut microbes, and influence their growth.

4 – It can help manage stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety can aggravate IBS symptoms and may even be a primary trigger for some people. Exercise helps by lowering levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. It also increases levels of endorphins (feel good hormones). Exercising outdoors in a green space (like a park) seems to have an additive effect.

5. – It can help with fatigue

People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often report fatigue - a whole body tiredness which doesn't improve with sleep. Whilst it sounds counter-intuitive, gentle exercise (like a 10–20-minute walk) can help.

How much exercise is recommended?

There’s not enough evidence to say what the ideal amount of exercise is for people with IBS.

Most studies looking at the impact of exercise on IBS symptoms have used the recommendations for general health.

In the U.K. these recommendations are 150 minutes of moderate intensity excise per week - this amounts to 20-30 minutes most days of the week.

In the next lesson we’ll be looking at what moderate intensity actually means, and why it matters.