Best Type of Exercises for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

So what types of exercises benefit people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) the most? Recent research shows that not only exercise in general is helpful for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome, but a more specific workout protocol seems to have the best benefit.

And that is a protocol of moderate to vigorous activity, done for 20-30 minutes, and three to five times every week. Another kind of exercise that’s best for IBS sufferers is a home-based exercise program. Working out at a gym can prove to be a major hassle for someone with irritable bowel syndrome.

I’m a certified personal trainer who once had a bout with microscopic colitis. The symptoms of microscopic colitis are similar enough to those of irritable bowel syndrome, that sometimes MC is misdiagnosed as IBS (which shouldn’t be happening, because the standard of medical care dictates that MC is diagnosed only after a large-colon tissue sample is analyzed under a microscope; hence the name “microscopic colitis.”)

I noticed that when doing intense strength training, I never had any bouts of the diarrhea. This was before diagnosis, but nevertheless, I simply continued going to the gym, and found it interesting that the diarrhea never wanted to come while I was working out hard. Nor did it come soon after the workouts (but it would come much later, of course).

So, based on my own experience, I will venture to take this a step further and suggest that if you have irritable bowel syndrome, to do a 30-minute, intense strength training session, 2-3 times a week. Really go at it. Pump the weights hard; get a fierce burning in your muscles. See if it doesn’t calm your IBS symptoms.

The research supporting exercise for IBS that’s moderate to vigorous comes from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. For the study, half of an IBS group of 102 people, ages 18-65, were assigned to increasing their activity level, while the other half stayed the same. Ratings by the participants of their irritable bowel syndrome complaints were recorded at the beginning of the study, and three months later.

The exercising group reported significant symptom improvement. Even a mild increase in exercise activity can reduce IBS symptoms “and protect from deterioration” of symptoms, says Riadh Sadik, a senior physician who instigated the study.

So what constitutes moderate activity? And what comprises vigorous exercise? Moderate cardio workouts mean you can carry on a conversation during the activity, but you are breathing heavier and your heart rate is elevated. You feel some effort, and though conversation comes, it may be a bit challenged. You can sustain the exercise, but feel your muscles (or cardio system) definitely working.

Vigorous exercise is intense and conversation is difficult. You cannot sustain the activity for long, maybe for only minutes at a time. In between vigorous bouts, you take it easy for a few or more minutes. This is called intensity interval training. Done over a 20-30 minute period, you will have completed a vigorous exercise session that will relieve IBS symptoms.

If intense bouts of exercise aren’t for you, then moderate exercise will still work well for relief of irritable bowel distress. Do cardio and resistance. An entire session may be cardio, or resistance (strength training/lifting weights). Or, you can do both in one session.

Irritable bowel syndrome doesn’t mean you can’t exercise or shouldn’t exercise. It simply means one more reason to work out! And IBS may influence where and when you exercise, but never use irritable bowel syndrome as an excuse for avoiding exercise. The full report about exercise and irritable bowel syndrome appears in the American Journal of Gastroenterology (2011).


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