Can Swimming and other Low Impact Exercises Ease Constipation?

For the nearly 20 years I have had IBS, many (if not most) of my symptoms tended to be on the IBS-D side of the spectrum. However, I have also experienced symptoms of alternating constipation, especially during my early 20s.

When I would become constipated, I would also become extremely bloated. It was uncomfortable, to say the least: It felt like I had a large stone or concrete brick in the bottom of my belly. Even though I didn't want to do much of anything because of how I felt, I realized that remaining stagnant would probably make matters much worse. In fact, some of my worst bouts of constipation I experienced during those years occurred either during or immediately after long road trips or train treks where I did nothing much but sit in the same position for many hours over the course of multiple days.

The summer of 2001 was especially bad, and sometimes I couldn't use a bathroom for several days. I tried to drink a lot of coffee to trigger a bowel movement (a big mistake I know, because if and when it did finally work, it went in the other direction and then I was sick and on the toilet on and off for hours). Yet, there was one thing that sometimes seemed to help me go afterwards, but in a more natural way: swimming.

Research suggests swimming helps with IBS symptoms

Once or twice a week I would drive out into the mountains and visit some of the natural ponds and springs and swim some laps until I was tired. Usually, shortly after I got home, I would be able to go to the bathroom and finally feel some relief from all the bloating and heaviness that I had been suffering from. Likewise, I found that rather than drinking coffee or eating crappy food, doing some mild yoga stretches at home, followed by a moderately-paced walk around my neighborhood, also helped move things along (I usually stayed within a few blocks of my home in case I suddenly needed to use the bathroom). Fast forward many years, and while I don't suffer often from constipation or anywhere to the extent I once did anymore at all, I still find swimming benefits my health in myriad other ways, including my IBS.

Peer review research has also yielded evidence to support that swimming and other low impact exercise benefits those who suffer from constipation. Earlier this year, CNN referred to a 2003 study surveying over 62,000 women ages 36 - 61 years-old that found that those women who exercised less than once a week were more than twice as likely to experience constipation as compared to those engaged in daily physical activity.1,2 Another randomized trial CNN cited enrolled inactive middle-aged men and women with chronic constipation into a 12-week exercise program and found they experienced more bowel regularity as a result.3

Doing my own research, I found a study of 42 Hong Kong high school students that also revealed that "Constipation was associated with insufficient physical activity and excessive sedentary behaviours..." and that "constipation could be prevented by promotion of physical activity."4 At the other end of the age spectrum, a peer review-released set of recommendations by certified pharmacists to relieve constipation in elderly individuals (who are particularly prone to suffer from it, even if they don't have IBS) advised they engage in "mild physical activity (eg, walking, swimming, yoga, tai chi)" within an hour or so of waking up.

So, next time you are having trouble "going," maybe hitting your local pool or the nearest beach or swimming hole could help you out, or even just slipping on your sneakers and going for a power walk. What exercise routines, if any, help you when you are "feeling stuck?"

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