Does Exercise Help or Hurt IBS?

woman exercising at gym
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We all know that exercise is good for us, right? But if you are dealing with the unpredictable symptoms of IBS, you may be wondering where exercise fits in. Let's take a look at what is known about the relationship between exercise and IBS.

Why Exercise Is Important

Regular exercise has long been regarded as a necessary component for a healthy life. Exercise reduces your risk of:

In addition to playing a protective role for your health, physical exercise also can improve the symptoms of a wide variety of health disorders.

Exercise and General GI Symptoms

Research indicates that in general, exercise can help or aggravate GI symptoms depending on how intense the level of exercise is. Mild and moderate exercise can reduce the risk of constipation, diverticular disease, gallstones, and as stated above, colon cancer.

On the other hand, extremely strenous activity can result in any of the following:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Belching
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Gastrointesinal bleeding (in rare cases)
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Urges for a bowel movement
  • Vomiting

Interestingly, a surprisingly large number of elite athletes, with estimate ranging as high as 50%, report that digestive symptoms interfere with their training and ability to compete. Females are at greater risk for unwanted GI symptoms, as are runners in general.

IBS and Exercise

Exercise has been associated with improving the symptoms of disorders that overlap with IBS, such as depression and depression and fibromyalgia. But there is not a lot known about the effect of exercise on IBS.

One group of researchers found that a 12-week intervention in which moderate exercise was increased was associated with an improvement of IBS symptoms.

With a 5 year follow-up, many of the patients continued to exercise moderately and not only experienced a continued improvement in their IBS symptoms, but also reported improvement in the areas of anxiety, depression, fatigue and quality of life.

Other researchers have identified a higher risk of experiencing IBS with diarrhea in distance runners.

Should You Exercise When You Have IBS?

Although research does not have much to offer in terms of definitive answers, it does appear that moderate exercise may be of help to your IBS and will certainly be of help to your overall health.

The following factors may help you to exercise without aggravating your IBS:

1. Be sure to stay well-hydrated.

2. Don't exercise at an intensity you have not trained for.

3. Eat small meals on exercise days.

4. Avoid foods with lactose or sorbitol on exercise days.


Johannesson, E., "Physical activity improves symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized controlled trial." American Journal of Gastroenterology 2011 106:915-922.

Johannesson, E., "Intervention to increase physical activity in irritable bowel syndrome shows long-term positive effects" World Journal of Gastroenterology 2015 21:600-608.

Oliveira, E., "The impact of physical exercise on the gastrointestinal tract" Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 2009 12:533–538.

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