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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic problem of the digestive system, particularly the large intestine. IBS shows up in different ways in different patients, with the two most common symptoms being constipation or diarrhoea. Other symptoms of IBS are pain or discomfort in the lower abdomen, bloating and gas.

According to a study published in the Journal of Datta Meghe Institute of Medical Sciences University in 2018, about 15% of the Indian population is affected by IBS. The ratio of the disease appearing in Indian men and women is 3:1.

The prevalence of IBS in Western countries is even higher, with about 20% of the population affected by it in the US alone. Globally, women patients outnumber male patients by a factor of 3:2 in America and 2:1 in other Western countries.

IBS isn't life-threatening, but it has a significant impact on the lives of people suffering from it. IBS tends to affect people between 15 and 50 years of age. While the exact cause of the disease is still unknown, most experts put it down to psychological factors as well as a breakdown in the communication between the brain and the digestive system.

Exercise is known to alleviate the symptoms of the condition, even though it cannot provide an outright cure. Stress is said to be a major trigger for the onset of IBS symptoms and with a proper diet, exercise as well as managing stress, one can reduce the symptoms as well as control the disease.

Read more: Ayurvedic medicine, treatment and remedies for irritable bowel syndrome

  1. Benefits of irritable bowel syndrome exercises
  2. Connection between exercise and IBS
  3. Types of exercises for IBS
  4. Exercise tips for IBS patients
  5. Abdominal breathing for IBS
  6. Relaxation exercise for irritable bowel
  7. Takeaways for exercising with IBS
  8. Doctors for Exercises for irritable bowel syndrome

Normally, our gut muscles contract to push the food forward and absorb the nutrients before excreting the waste. In IBS, these gut muscles do not work properly.

Although there is no cure for IBS, severe symptoms can be avoided with the help of lifestyle changes like avoiding foods that can trigger one's IBS, managing stress levels and regular exercise.

A study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2015 found that increasing physical activity had positive effects on patients who showed symptoms of both IBS as well as other psychological factors. 

The aim of exercising during IBS is to stimulate the muscles in the digestive system and address triggers like stress. The following are the benefits of exercise for IBS patients:

  • Reduces stress: Regular exercise is known to control stress levels by releasing more endorphins in the body. Stress is a known trigger for IBS in many patients. Therefore, exercises that reduce stress have a positive effect on controlling IBS symptoms.
  • Increased strength and fitness: There is a general gain of strength and fitness if one exercises regularly, which gives patients a greater ability to handle IBS-induced pain and discomfort.
  • Reduces overall severity of IBS: Regular low to moderate level of exercise is known to reduce other symptoms of IBS as well, as it allows for improved bowel movements, reduces pain and lowers the severity of constipation or diarrhoea among patients.

Read more: Ayurvedic Herbs and Medicines for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

One of the main reasons why regular exercise is recommended to those suffering from symptoms of IBS is to manage stress levels better. While removing certain foods from your diet is beneficial in reducing the effects of IBS on the body, a customised diet is also beneficial.

The onset of stress or other psychological factors can wreak havoc on the body regardless of a strict diet you may be following. Therefore, it is just as important to include exercise as part of your daily regimen to boost your body’s resistance to IBS and its several symptoms.

Stress is effectively controlled through exercises that can help produce happy hormones in the body, allowing you to manage your condition in a much better way.

Read more: Homoeopathic Medicines for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

As a general rule, high-intensity exercises aren’t recommended for people living with chronic problems, and that includes IBS. Those with IBS symptoms that lead to diarrhoea are particularly at risk if they engage in high-intensity physical activities such as long-distance running, football or movements that require excessive running, jumping or regimes like Crossfit or HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training).

Moderate- to low-intensity exercises are usually advised for people living with IBS. Those with symptoms that lead to IBS-induced constipation can, however, benefit from more intensive regimes that include endurance activities as it leads to improved bowel function. Patients with IBS are also encouraged to exercise more outdoors, as exposure to the sun and surroundings can also have a positive impact.

Some of the exercises people living with IBS can do are:

  • Aerobic exercises: Movements like jogging, walking, cycling and swimming are usually highly recommended to alleviate the symptoms of IBS. 
  • Yoga: Yoga poses like Bhujangasana (Cobra pose), Dhanurasana (Bow pose) and Pawanmuktasana (Wind-relieving pose) help to improve bowel function as well as underlying problems, thereby alleviating the triggers of IBS.
  • Breathing exercises: Exercises in which you focus on breathing from the stomach can also prevent your muscle tensing up - when the gut is relaxed, digestion tends to be smoother.
  • Tai chi: The ancient Chinese martial art focuses on extremely slow movements and promotes coordination between the mind and the body. Tai chi is known to improve digestive functions as you perform gentle movements while focusing on your breathing patterns.

Pick an exercise format you are comfortable with. Working out regularly is the key here, and you are more likely to stick with an exercise programme you enjoy. Here are some tips you should follow and incorporate into your exercise routine to control the onset of symptoms of IBS in the body:

  • Make a routine: Exercise regularly and stick to one time of the day for your routine. This helps the body adjust to exercise and physical intensity better.
  • Follow your gut: Try a few different types of workouts to see what works best for you. If you find even high-intensity weight-training helps control your IBS, follow that. If gentler yoga or Tai chi poses help, incorporate those into your routine.
  • Wait after eating: Do not eat anything for an hour before or after a workout.
  • Listen to your body: Try to avoid exercising when you are tired.

If you've recently seen a baby breathe, you would have noticed the gentle rise and fall of the baby's stomach with each breath. This is called abdominal breathing. You can try it this way:

  • Lie down comfortably on your back on a mat.
  • Place one hand on your stomach.
  • Now, breathe in deeply through your nose. As the air fills your lungs, make a conscious effort to raise your stomach (and the hand with it).
  • Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  • Breathe out slowly through the mouth.
  • Do this for 5 minutes.

Relaxation techniques in Yoga and Tai chi are effective in reducing stress and pain. You can try something as simple as savasana, to reap many benefits. Try it like this:

  • Lie down on your back on a mat. Let your feet drop to the sides. Place your arms comfortably on each side, palms facing up. Close your eyes. If need be, adjust the position of your head and neck to get more comfortable.
  • Now, tense up the muscles in your legs and feet. Raise your calves about two inches off the mat. Hold for a few seconds and drop your legs and feet back on to the mat. Feel the tension melting away from your legs.
  • Now, tense up the muscles in your hips and thighs. Hold for a few seconds and relax.
  • Now, tense up the muscles in your core by trying to suck your belly button in as much as possible. Hold for a few seconds and relax.
  • Now, tense up the muscles in your arms and make tight fists with your hand. Raise your arms about two inches off the mat. Hold for a few seconds and drop your arms and hands back on to the mat.
  • Now, tense up the muscles in your neck and shoulders. Hold for a few seconds and relax.
  • Now, squeeze your eyes shut and crinkle your forehead into a frown. Hold for a few seconds and relax your face.
  • Lie there for at least five minutes more as you imagine your body going into the ground and all the tension melting away from your muscles. Breathe deeply.

People living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often stop themselves from pursuing regular activities. IBS can also affect their mental health as patients often feel that they can't enjoy life like their friends and family can, going out for dinner or road trips and other regular activities.

Stress and other psychological factors act as triggers for IBS, and a regular regime of exercise can help keep those triggers in control.

Even though it is incurable, IBS can be managed with the help of certain lifestyle changes: a healthy diet as well as consistent physical activity.

While picking the exercise, patients should try a few different types of exercise - walking, cycling, swimming, and even aerobics and strength training - before selecting the one they like best. This process will also help them understand how their body responds to these exercises, and which exercise format is the most effective for reducing their IBS symptoms.

Finally, abdominal breathing and relaxation exercises can be performed by anyone with this condition - irrespective of their age and skill level. They can help by reducing stress and creating a sense of well-being.

Dr. Abhay Singh

Dr. Abhay Singh

1 Years of Experience

Dr. Suraj Bhagat

Dr. Suraj Bhagat

23 Years of Experience

Dr. Smruti Ranjan Mishra

Dr. Smruti Ranjan Mishra

23 Years of Experience

Dr. Sankar Narayanan

Dr. Sankar Narayanan

10 Years of Experience

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  3. Daley AJ et al. The Effects of Exercise upon Symptoms and Quality of Life in Patients Diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Randomised Controlled Trial. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 2008 Sep; 29(9):778-82.
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  5. Zhou C et al. Exercise therapy of patients with irritable bowel syndrome: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Neurogastroenterology and Motility. 2018 Sep; 31(6):13461.
  6. Miller LE. Study design considerations for irritable bowel syndrome clinical trials. Annals of Gastroenterology. 2014; 27(4): 338–345.
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