Exercise

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2024 | Last updated: May 2024

Exercise has been shown to improve symptoms experienced by people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).1

Physical activity has many advantages to the health and well-being of the body, including increasing muscle movement in the colon and decreasing transit time. Transit time is the length of time stool or gas is in the colon. Exercise doesn’t seem to decrease bloating. But since it does affect the gas transit time, some people may experience less bloating with exercise.2

In one study, people with IBS who included 20 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exertion 3 times a week for 12 weeks reported a significant reduction in IBS symptoms compared to people who kept to their usual activity. Researchers found that the people 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

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Another small study investigated bloating. Results from that study show that mild activity increased the passage of gas, helped prevent gas retention, and reduced bloating for people with IBS. 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 3 to 6 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 person and their previous exercise experience, examples of moderate exercise for a healthy adult include:5,6

  • 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 to 12 mph)
  • Recreational badminton
  • Doubles tennis
  • Dancing
  • Gardening
  • General building tasks, such as roofing or painting
  • Carrying or moving moderate loads (less than 45 lbs)

What is vigorous exercise?

Vigorous exercise is activity that burns more than 6 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:5,6

  • Hiking
  • Walking/Climbing briskly uphill
  • Aerobics
  • Jogging (6 mph)
  • Fast swimming
  • Shoveling
  • Carrying heavy loads (more than 45 lbs)
  • Bicycling fast (14 to 16 mph)
  • Playing a basketball game
  • Playing a soccer game
  • Singles tennis

When to include exercise

During periods of acute symptoms from IBS, such as diarrhea and abdominal pain, it may be difficult for a person 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 for managing IBS symptoms. In addition to exercise, people may benefit from changes in diet, stress management, medications, and alternative or complementary medicine.

Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.