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What You Need to Know About Exercise and IBS

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Exercise may help some individuals with IBS, but evidence supporting this is limited. A 2023 review found that low to moderate-intensity exercise could help alleviate symptoms such as bloating and gas. However, the quality and amount of scientific evidence supporting these findings are low, with a high risk of bias in the reviewed studies. Exercise might be a beneficial management strategy for some people, although its effectiveness can vary from person to person. Compared to other strategies like dietary changes or stress reduction, exercise has less robust evidence backing its benefits.

Exercise can potentially trigger IBS symptoms, particularly when it involves intense, long-lasting activities such as long-distance running or cycling. Research indicates that strenuous exercise and endurance sports can lead to exercise-induced gastrointestinal symptoms (Ex-GIS), affecting up to 70% of athletes in some studies. 

Symptoms of Ex-GIS include bloating, belching, heartburn, regurgitation, flatulence, bowel urgency, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms can be mistaken for IBS or exacerbate existing IBS conditions. Intense exercise may also damage the intestinal lining, making it more permeable, which can worsen IBS symptoms.

What Types of Exercise Help IBS?

Low to moderate-intensity exercises are generally more suitable for individuals with IBS. Activities such as swimming, running, jogging, and cycling can help manage symptoms. Yoga is another beneficial form of exercise that can be relaxing and strengthening. While there is limited strong evidence showing that yoga actively reduces IBS symptoms, some studies suggest it can improve quality of life and reduce perceived stress. Aerobic exercise, performed at moderate intensity, has also been shown to reduce bloating and abdominal pain and improve psychological well-being in small study groups.

Exercises to Avoid

Individuals with IBS may need to avoid intense or prolonged exercise, which can trigger or worsen symptoms. Exercising for more than two hours has been associated with exercise-induced digestive symptoms. Activities involving a lot of running or jumping can also exacerbate symptoms, possibly due to increased pressure on internal organs or effects on motility. It is important to note that exercise tolerance can vary over time, and individuals may need to experiment with different activities to find what works best for them.

Managing IBS While Exercising

Exercise is generally beneficial for mental and physical health, and people with IBS should stay active as long as it does not worsen their condition. To manage IBS while exercising, it is helpful to start slowly with new activities, keeping track of how they affect symptoms. Wearing comfortable, loose clothing can prevent discomfort from bloating or abdominal pain. Staying hydrated is crucial, as dehydration can worsen constipation. Additionally, checking nutritional labels on fitness products like protein powders and snacks can help avoid ingredients that may trigger IBS symptoms.

When to Contact a Doctor

Individuals should consult a doctor if they experience digestive symptoms similar to IBS but are unsure of the cause. It’s also advisable to speak with a doctor if exercise becomes difficult due to symptoms. Immediate medical advice is recommended for symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, a swelling or lump in the stomach or rectum, or bleeding from the rectum, as these may indicate a more serious condition.

The relationship between IBS and exercise is complex. Some evidence suggests that low to moderate-intensity exercise can help reduce IBS symptoms like bloating, but more high-quality studies are needed. Intense endurance training may worsen IBS symptoms, so less intense exercise is generally recommended. People with IBS should wear loose, comfortable clothing while exercising, stay hydrated, and adjust the intensity or duration of their workouts if symptoms occur. Persistent or severe symptoms should be discussed with a doctor.

Do you suffer from IBS? Have you noticed that exercise can trigger it or make it worse? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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