Swim Your Tummy Troubles Away
Last updated: December 2021
When those of us with IBS think about swimming, some negative images come to mind: cramping, bowel flare-ups, bathing suit blunders... Ultimately, many of our associations with the pool are not entirely positive. Well folks, I'm here to try and change all of that!
Feeling defeated? Let's change that!
Invisible illnesses, such as fibromyalgia, IBS, and mental health - to name a few - all include incredibly debilitating symptoms that are further exacerbated by each other. If you're anything like me, you're often trying to figure out ways to not just ignore, but rather fix your symptoms. Unfortunately, many of these illnesses are not generally fixable. Often, we are told my physicians that we simply need to "prepare for a long life of pain" (yes, a doctor of mine did say this exact sentence to me). Alas, we can feel defeated before we even try to get control of our body which can lead to further injure our mental and physical health. Oh how we hate this vicious cycle. But, I am here to tell you there are ways to regain some semblance of control in this life.
There are several ways in which we can try to take back our lives, our health, and our mental state. I have mentioned some before, such as staying active, weightlifting, and finding the humor in our lives. Today I would like to add one more to the list: swimming.
How swimming can change your life
Though the idea of trapping your bloated belly in a bathing suit might sound like the plot of a horror movie, fret not! I agree that most bathing suits (two-pieces aside) are incredibly uncomfortable and tight - especially when we are feeling cramped, nauseous, or bloated; however, there is an answer to your problems: just keep swimming. It might seem like a paradoxical statement, but once you start swimming (and try to continue swimming on a semi-regular basis) your IBS symptoms can (and often will) be calmed.
The gentle movement of swimming, combined with the healing resistance and weightlessness of water, is extremely helpful to your body. Not only can swimming help calm the pain we might feel from bloating and cramping, but it can also help you maintain regular intestinal movement. Just as a short walk can help move our bowels, so too can a short, gentle swim. Furthermore, the latter is much more forgiving if you're also suffering from an auto-immune or physical illness, such as fibromyalgia or lupus, as many of us are.
According to Doctor Richard Benya, director of the gastrointestinal laboratory and professor of medicine at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois, aerobic exercise is considered the best option for those with illnesses such as IBS and fibromyalgia. However, because many of our symptoms can be exacerbated by some vigorous aerobic exercise, swimming can often be the best fit. "Running is well known to induce gastrointestinal symptoms in runners, including diarrhea," Benya suggests, "Hence, patients with IBS-diarrhea would likely not benefit from running — swimming is a good alternative.”1
The mental health benefits of swimming
Though not everyone will love swimming as much as I do, I cannot stress enough how calming it can be to gently glide through warm water (Note: most public pools are set to a higher temperature for this purpose, and some fitness centers even have warmer pools for those with joint problems). When I am gliding, everything gets quiet - of course, that is because I am wearing earplugs... but seriously, when I swim - especially just a slow breast-stroke - I find myself enter a place of calm, of serenity. Sometimes I find myself thinking about my to-do list - which is okay too, but often I am in my own world, focusing on my breathing, my strokes, my laps.
Whether you are a professional athlete or an amateur, regular ol' person, swimming can be incredibly beneficial. Molly Hurford, a young endurance athlete from New Jersey, and fellow IBS sufferer, suggests that swimming was not only the most relaxing sport, but also the most low-impact - which we can all agree is a wonderful combination. Regarding her IBS, specifically, Hurford said that she found swimming helped gently stretch her body out in a way that calmed her worst symptoms. "On a day when I was really cramped up or bloated," she states, "swimming helped a lot to make me feel better."1 Furthermore, it is important to note that the anxiety many of us feel being in public spaces, especially if a flare up occurs, can be calmed by the fact that public gyms and pools always have plenty of bathrooms close by.
So, whether you're looking for a fitness trend, or simply want to stay active, I implore you to try grabbing a suit and hitting the pool. You won't be sorry.
Which of the following symptoms of IBS do you experience most frequently?