IBS? Can exercise help?

Best types of exercise to help ease IBS symptoms

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

23 January 2018

Is exercise possible with IBS?

For those with IBS, the thought of taking part in any sort of exercise can, in many cases, be daunting. However, there is reason to believe that it can indeed be beneficial for IBS – when it’s done right that is. 

So, before getting stuck in and trying it out for yourself, I just want to explain why exercise could be the way to go when it comes to easing symptoms of IBS.

1. The IBS-stress link.

We know that there is a strong link between IBS and stress. Now, contrary to popular belief, high intensity exercise could actually be a source of stress to the body, and so this isn’t always the best option. Therefore, we do need to be careful – we want low to medium intensity exercise to start, but more importantly, we want a type of exercise that you actually enjoy! This quite often varies from individual to individual and may involve a little trial and error at first.

So, when done right, exercise can help to reduce stress, which in turn, is beneficial for the outcomes of IBS. Many of us know only too well that stress can trigger symptoms, so if gearing up for that 10k makes your tummy churn – then it probably isn’t the right choice for you. Start small, keep listening to your symptoms and slowly build yourself up – you’ll soon find your confidence and abilities will grow and you may just surprise yourself.

2. Healthy lifestyle means a healthy gut

Although there is no known ‘cure’ for IBS, we know that a multi-disciplinary approach can help to ease symptoms. This means managing your diet, but also lifestyle habits, which includes everything from moving more to getting enough sleep. We have lots of reason to believe that a healthy diet and lifestyle translates to a healthy gut – this includes eating lots of fresh foods and taking part in regular, gentle exercise. We know that cardiovascular exercise can help build stamina and keep our muscles strong, and exercise in general helps release feel good hormone-like chemicals called endorphins, which help to support your mental wellbeing.

So now that you have the basics in mind, which exercise would be best to try when it comes to IBS? Here I run through some of my top picks:

• Walking – Walking is underrated – it helps support your cardiovascular health if you are able to get your heart rate up, but also, it can be therapeutic – depending on where you go that is! As we walk, especially nice and briskly, it can also help gently massage our digestive tract which is why exercise may be especially beneficial for those suffering from constipation-dominant IBS1. Walks in the countryside and being at one with nature, can also help support your mood, as well as your fitness levels!

• Kettlebells – Kettlebell exercises help work the arms and back muscles primarily, but the beauty is you can do as much as you feel comfortable with. Working your legs and tummy can make it a whole body workout and you can do it alongside some music, add in some dance moves and have some fun with it – ideal!

Swimming – Swimming offers a whole body workout too but without harsh movements which could upset a sensitive tum. It can be as relaxing or as intensive as you like depending on what you want to get out of it. As an added bonus, you can work on your stamina too.

• Stretching – Stretching is great for relieving tension and with some relaxing music and breathing techniques, can be extremely soothing – both mentally and physically.

• Tai chi – Another lower intensity, relaxing option, Tai chi combines breathing techniques with gentle, flowing movements. Don’t be fooled though, it helps work those muscles too. So whether it’s your extremities or your core, you can end up feeling like you’ve had a good workout which can also be rewarding.

• Cycling – Cycling gives your legs in particular a good workout, taking some of the pressure of the abdomen and it avoids some of the harsher, pounding movements associated with some other sports. Also, why not pick a relaxing scenic route with nice views and breathe deeply for a good dose of fresh air – perfectly uplifting.

• Dance classes – Dance classes can be extremely good fun and again, as intense a workout as you want to make them. Combined with a social element and some good music, it can be the perfect way to unwind, reduce stress, but keep fit. Also, another good option if constipation is a problem for you, as it can encourage things to get moving.

What exercises are better left untouched when it comes to IBS?

As above, with time, your confidence and fitness levels will grow and other types of exercise may become more of an option for you. But beware, initially some of the following exercise options could be ones to avoid if you suffer from IBS:

• Running – pounding, jarring movements can put your digestive system under pressure. Also, both physically and mentally, running can be all-round quite stressful, so one to start off with small and work your way up, if at all.

• Ball Sports – The competitive nature of ball sports can make them quite physically and mentally demanding. If you still fancy giving one a try, why not try something more relaxed such as netball or volleyball rather than a more high intensity option such as football.

• Circuits – Although dance classes can be a nice option, just watch out for more intense circuit classes. Many of these involve more ruthless circuits with more demanding components – not quite so relaxing.


1. Daley AJ, Grimmett C and Roberts L et al. The effects of exercise upon symptoms and quality of life in patients diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome – a randomised controlled trial. Int J Sports Med, 2008, DOI 10.1055/s-2008-1038600

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