Woman in pain on run

Can exercise help with IBS? Yes, explains a gastroenterologist

Posted by for Strength

The importance of gut health has been well-documented lately, and rightly so: it can impact our health, mood and activity levels.

Yet, there’s so many people who are currently struggling with poor gut health. Two in 10 people in the UK suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, according to Bupa, which is the name given to long-term discomfort of the abdomen coupled with changes in bowel movements. 

IBS is usually something you’ll have to manage throughout your life, but there are some lifestyle factors you can implement to control flare ups. According to the NHS, these include limiting caffeine and alcohol, reducing stress and exercising regularly.

If you’re in the midst of a stomach clenching attack, exercise is probably the last thing on your mind. So what should you do to help? We asked the expert on this topic, gastroenterologist at The Princess Grace Hospital Professor Dame Parveen Kumar.

How does exercise help IBS?

“In the long term, exercise will help IBS. We know that exercise is a healthy thing to do anyway, for the mind, body and also for the bowel,” says Professor Dame Kumar.

The reason for this is because exercise increases the motility of the bowel – that is the contractions of the muscles, explains Professor Dame Kumar. It’s important to keep this strong for many reasons, and IBS management is one of them. “Increasing motility will certainly help somebody who has constipation-lead IBS as it will encourage things to move through the gastrointestinal tract,” adds Professor Dame Kumar.

“But the other reason is that when you exercise you release endorphins, which is a morphine-like substance, but it’s actually a hormone. It helps with relaxation and has many beneficial effects on the body, both neurologically and also gastroenterologically.” 

Woman relaxing
If you have a flare-up, it's best to relax.

Can exercise help during IBS flare-ups?

“I think if you got it in the middle of an attack, short term, exercise probably won’t help,” explains Professor Dame Kumar. That’s because exercise is a stress on the body, spiking cortisol levels. It goes against the general advice of IBS attack management, that is to relax and not to aggravate the body.

“While exercise might take your mind off the symptoms, it might not be useful, especially if you have diarrhoea-lead IBS. We see that regular people who run marathons, for example, suffer from diarrhoea because really strenuous exercise can irritate the gut. So, if you’re already having an IBS flare-up, you’d be even more at risk.” 

What exercise is best for IBS?

“I don’t think there is one style of workout that will help, but things like walking, swimming, cycling and running will be beneficial as long as they are not excessive,” advises Professor Dame Kumar. Gentle movement, like yoga, can also help. “I don’t think it matters what it is as long as it’s regular. You need to be careful to gradually build up to the exercise level – there’s nothing worse than somebody with IBS who is not used to exercise suddenly taking to intense exercise as they’ll find you get muscle aches and pains. So, start small, build up, and make it regular.” 

Professor Dame Kumar is keen to stress that you shouldn’t assume you have IBS if you experience pain or discomfort as it may be something more serious: “Make sure you’ve been properly diagnosed. Irritable bowel symptoms are fairly nonspecific, and, for example, celiac disease returns the same symptoms like bloating, wind and diarrhoea.”

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty / Unsplash

Share this article

Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).