Exercise has been shown to improve symptoms experienced by patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).1 Physical activity has many advantages to the health and well-being of the body, and regarding intestinal health, it increases the muscle movement in the colon and decreases transit time. Transit time is the length of time stool or gas is in the colon. Exercise doesn’t seem to decrease bloating, but as it does affect the gas transit time, some patients may experience less bloating with exercise.2
In one study, patients with IBS who included 20-60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exertion three times a week for 12 weeks reported a significant reduction in IBS symptoms compared to patients who kept to their usual activity. Patients were randomized to participate in either the exercise group or the usual activity group, and the severity of their symptoms was measured. Researchers found that the patients with the most significant change in their fitness level had the most improvement in their overall symptoms from IBS. Exercises included in this study were cycling, walking, swimming, and jogging.2,3
Another small study investigated bloating. Results from that study indicated that mild activity increased the passage of gas, helped prevent gas retention and alleviated bloating for IBS patients. It is noteworthy that researchers in this study cautioned that they did not examine more vigorous forms of exercise, which may have different effects on bloating. 4
What is moderate exercise?
Moderate exercise is defined as physical activity that gets the body moving fast enough or strenuously enough to burn three to six times as much energy per minute compared to sitting quietly. The intensity of the exercise can also be considered as how much effort it takes to complete the activity. While there is some variation in intensity based on the fitness level of the patient and their previous exercise experience, examples of moderate exercise for a healthy adult include:
- Walking at a brisk pace (4 mph)
- Heavy cleaning, such as washing windows, vacuuming, or mopping
- Mowing the lawn (with a power mower)
- Bicycling with light effort (10-12 mph)
- Recreational badminton
- Doubles tennis
- General building tasks, such as roofing or painting
- Carrying or moving moderate loads (less than 45 lbs) 5,6
What is vigorous exercise?
Vigorous exercise is activity that burns more than six times the energy per minute than the body uses sitting quietly. Again, there is some variation in the intensity of the activity based on the fitness level of the person. Examples of vigorous exercise include:
- Walking/Climbing briskly uphill
- Jogging (6 mph)
- Fast swimming
- Carrying heavy loads (more than 45 lbs)
- Bicycling fast (14-16 mph)
- Playing a basketball game
- Playing a soccer game
- Singles tennis 5,6
When to include exercise
During periods of acute symptoms from IBS, such as diarrhea and abdominal pain, it may be difficult for a patient to incorporate, or begin, an exercise program. When symptoms decrease, exercise can be a beneficial addition and can help prevent and manage future symptoms. Consult a healthcare professional before starting an exercise regimen.
Other treatment options for IBS
There are a number of treatment strategies in managing IBS symptoms. In addition to exercise, patients may benefit from changes in diet, stress management, medications, and alternative or complementary medicine.