There is limited evidence that exercise may help relieve some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as bloating. However, the benefits may vary between individuals.
For some, exercise may be a useful tool for IBS management, while for others, it may not have a substantial effect on their symptoms.
Intense exercise may also make IBS worse in some cases. As a result, the type and duration of the exercise is an important consideration.
This article looks at IBS and physical exercise, including whether it helps or triggers symptoms, the types of exercises people can try, and what to avoid.
Exercise may help some people with IBS, but the evidence is limited.
However, the authors emphasize that the quality and amount of scientific evidence to support this is low. There was also a high risk of bias in the studies they looked at.
Exercise may be a helpful management strategy for some people. However, there is less evidence behind it than other strategies like dietary changes or stress reduction. The benefits may also vary from person to person.
Exercise may trigger IBS. However, this generally happens with intense, long lasting forms of exercise, such as long-distance running or cycling.
According to 2023 research, strenuous exercise and endurance sports may cause exercise-induced gastrointestinal symptoms (Ex-GIS). In previous studies, researchers found rates as high as 70% among athletes. The symptoms of Ex-GIS may include:
People could mistake these symptoms for IBS. However, strenuous exercise may also make existing IBS worse.
Excessive exercise can also slow the transit of food through the digestive system. It could cause malabsorption, meaning the body does not absorb nutrients as effectively as it should. For people with IBS, these changes could worsen their symptoms.
Additional exercises that may be suitable include:
Yoga is a form of exercise that can be relaxing and strengthening. Some people report that it helps with their IBS. However, there is a lack of strong evidence showing it actively reduces symptoms.
However, while quality of life improved more, the reduction in symptoms was not significantly different to a control group, who only received advice.
A person with IBS may wish to avoid any intense or long lasting types of exercise, depending on their reaction to it.
A 2022 qualitative study that interviewed 11 females with IBS also found that activities involving a lot of running or jumping could cause symptoms. This may be because jumping increases pressure inside the internal organs or affects motility.
That said, what people can tolerate in terms of exercise may change over time. Additionally, this was a small study that may not represent the experiences of all people with IBS.
People with IBS can respond very differently to the same treatment approaches. As a result, it may be necessary to experiment with exercise and test out what works best.
In moderation, exercise is generally beneficial for mental and physical health. It is advisable that people with IBS keep active, so long as it does not worsen their condition.
To manage IBS while exercising, it may help to:
People may find it useful to begin a new activity gradually, keeping track of how it affects their symptoms. This can help them identify their tolerance and whether it helps their symptoms.
Wear comfortable clothing
Tight sports clothing may be uncomfortable or restrictive for people who experience bloating or abdominal pain. A person may opt for looser sportswear or alternative clothing, depending on the sport.
Check nutritional labels
People who want to get stronger or achieve other fitness goals may consider using products such as protein powders, supplements, and premade workout snacks. However, these products could have ingredients that cause digestive problems for some people.
For example, some low calorie sweeteners present in workout snacks, such as xylitol and sorbitol, are FODMAPs. This stands for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.” Some people with IBS have difficulty digesting FODMAPs.
For people following a low FODMAP diet, it can help to check the label first. Individuals can also make their own high protein, low FODMAP snacks.
Read more about foods to avoid with IBS.
People may consult a doctor if they have digestive symptoms similar to IBS but are unsure what is causing them. They can also speak with a doctor if they cannot exercise at all due to their symptoms.
If a person experiences any of the following, seek prompt medical advice:
These symptoms may be a sign of a more serious condition.
IBS and physical exercise have a complex relationship.
In some cases, intense endurance training may make IBS symptoms worse. As a result, most experts recommend trying less intense exercise.
People with IBS may find it helpful to wear loose, comfortable clothing while exercising and to stay hydrated. If exercise appears to cause symptoms, reduce the intensity or duration. If symptoms are persistent or severe, speak with a doctor.