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Does Exercise Really Help IBS?

Exercise and IBS: A Research Review

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Updated October 26, 2013

Does Exercise Really Help IBS?
Photo: Barry Austin/Getty Images

Exercise is routinely recommended to help the symptoms of IBS, but is this true? Surprisingly, the research on this widely held conclusion is seemingly nonexistent. With some effort, I was able to dig up three studies that are somewhat related. The studies vary widely in their approaches and none of them used IBS patients as the study population. However, the conclusions are interesting and do shed some light on the subject.

IBS and Exercise

The first study, conducted in Korea, looked at the prevalence of IBS in college students. The focus of the study was to try to determine whether lifestyle and diet were related to the presence of IBS. A questionnaire, involving self-report, was given to over 1,700 individuals. Although not relevant to our current discussion, the study found that students with and without IBS differed in terms of where they lived and their frequency of meals. More to the point, a trend (not reaching statistical significance) was seen that students who exercised less were more likely to have IBS. Keep in mind that this is a relationship, not a cause and effect conclusion. It is entirely possible that this relationship is due to the fact that the presence of IBS symptoms results in people feeling too sick to exercise.

Diarrhea and Exercise

The second study aimed to gather information regarding the relationship between obesity and GI symptoms. Like the first study, a self-report questionnaire was given to close to a thousand individuals who were classified as obese due to their Body Mass Index (BMI). Although the conclusions were somewhat different depending on the statistical measures that were used, there was some indication that the patients who had a higher BMI were more likely to experience abdominal pain and/or diarrhea, while those who ate a healthier diet (low fat and more fruit and fiber) were less likely to suffer from GI symptoms. The statistical analysis showed that the more physically active the individual was, the lower the amount of GI distress. Although this study did not look at IBS directly, it certainly comes the closest to answering our initial question.

Constipation and Exercise

The last study looked at the relationship between physical activity and constipation. Again, it is a widely held belief that exercise can serve to ease constipation. The study population consisted of over 1,000 employees of a healthcare company. Once again, the method consisted of self-report questionnaire. A surprising 20% of responders reported suffering from chronic constipation. Not surprisingly, the individuals who suffer from constipation appeared to have a lower quality of life than their non-constipated co-workers. Interestingly, they did not find a relationship between the amount of physical activity the workers engaged in and the symptom of constipation. An important finding to take away from this study is that the individuals who reported higher levels of physical activity experienced higher quality of life.

My Bottom Line

The benefits of exercise for overall health are well-documented and I believe that all individuals should incorporate exercise into their lives on a regular basis. That said, the jury is still out as to whether exercise will help your IBS. Obviously more research is needed. In the meantime, I recommend that you try to incorporate exercise into your life as much as you can. And maybe, just maybe, it will help reduce your digestive distress.

Essential Reading from Dr. Bolen, Your IBS Expert

Sources:

Kim, Y. & Ban, D. “Prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome, influence of lifestyle factors and bowel habits in Korean college students.” International Journal of Nursing Studies 2005 42:247-254.

Levy, R., Linde, J., Feld, K., Crowell, M. & Jeffery, R. The Association of Gastrointestinal Symptoms With Weight, Diet, and Exercise in Weight-Loss Program Participants Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2005 3:992-996.

Tuteja, A., Talley, N., Joos, S., Woehl, J. & Hickam, D. "Is constipation associated with decreased physical activity in normally active subjects?" American Journal of Gastroenterology 2005 100:124-129.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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