How to Exercise with Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the large intestine. It’s a chronic condition, which means it requires long-term management.

Common symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain
  • cramping
  • bloating
  • excess gas
  • constipation or diarrhea or both
  • mucus in the stool
  • fecal incontinence

These symptoms often come and go. They may last for days, weeks, or months. When you experience symptoms, it’s called an IBS flare-up.

IBS can interfere with daily life. There also isn’t a cure. However, for some people, certain lifestyle habits can help manage symptoms.

This includes regular physical activity. Exercise is thought to ease IBS symptoms by minimizing stress, improving bowel function, and reducing bloating.

Exercise as a trigger

While the underlying cause of IBS isn’t clear, some things can trigger flare- ups. These triggers are different for everyone.

Common triggers include:

  • food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance
  • spicy or sugary foods
  • emotional or mental stress
  • certain medications
  • gastrointestinal infection
  • hormonal changes

For many individuals with IBS, food intolerances are likely triggers. According to research from 2016, more than 60 percent of people with IBS experience symptoms after eating certain foods.

Exercise typically isn’t a trigger. In fact, a 2018 study found that low- to moderate-intensity activity can actually help relieve symptoms.

There isn’t solid research on how more vigorous exercise affects IBS symptoms. But it’s generally thought that intense or prolonged activities, like running a marathon, may aggravate symptoms.

Can it help with symptoms?

There’s evidence that physical activity may reduce symptoms of IBS.

In a 2011 study, researchers found that exercise decreased the severity of symptoms in people with IBS. On the other hand, less physical activity was associated with more severe IBS symptoms.

The researchers followed up with some of the participants from the 2011 study. The follow-up time ranged from 3.8 to 6.2 years. In their 2015 study, the researchers reported that those who continued to exercise experienced beneficial, lasting effects on IBS symptoms.

Another 2018 study found similar results. More than 4,700 adults completed a questionnaire, which assessed their gastrointestinal disorders, including IBS, and physical activity. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that less active people were more likely to have IBS than those who were physically active.

Additionally, a 2015 study determined that yoga scientifically improves symptoms in people with IBS. The experiment involved 1-hour yoga sessions, three times a week, for 12 weeks.

While researchers are still learning how exercise manages IBS symptoms, it’s likely related to:

  • Stress relief. Stress can trigger or worsen IBS symptoms, which may be explained by the brain-gut connection. Exercise has a positive effect on stress.
  • Better sleep. Like stress, poor sleep could trigger an IBS flare-up. But physical activity can help you get better sleep.
  • Increased gas clearance. Regular physical activity could improve your body’s ability to get rid of gas. This could decrease bloating, along with the accompanying pain and discomfort.
  • Encourage bowel movements. Exercise can also promote bowel movements, which may ease your symptoms.
  • Better sense of well-being. When you exercise regularly, you’re more likely to adopt other healthy habits. These habits could minimize your IBS symptoms.

Exercises to try

If you have IBS, it’s a good idea to get some exercise. Being active has many health benefits, including potential IBS relief. You can try:


Walking is a great option if you’re new to exercise. It’s low impact and doesn’t require special equipment.

When done regularly, walking can manage stress and promote bowel movements.

In the 2015 follow-up study above, walking was the most common activity enjoyed by the participants with fewer symptoms.

Other exercises for IBS

In addition to walking, you can also try these exercises for IBS:

  • jogging
  • leisurely biking
  • low impact aerobics
  • leisurely swimming
  • bodyweight workouts
  • organized sports

Stretches to reduce pain

Stretching is also beneficial for IBS. It works by massaging your digestive organs, reducing stress, and improving gas clearance. This can help decrease pain and discomfort due to IBS.

According to the 2015 study mentioned earlier, yoga is ideal for IBS symptoms. It’s recommended to do poses that gently target the lower abdomen.

Yoga poses for IBS include:


Bridge is a classic yoga pose that involves your abdomen. It also engages your butt and hips.

  1. Lie down on your back. Bend your knees and plant your feet on the floor, hip- width apart. Place your arms at your sides, palms facing down.
  2. Engage your core. Raise your hips until your torso is diagonal. Pause.
  3. Lower your hips to starting position.
Supine Twist

Supine Twist stretches your low and middle torso. In addition to relieving IBS symptoms, it’s also excellent for reducing lower back pain.

  1. Lie down on your back. Bend your knees and plant your feet on the floor, side by side. Extend your arms to a “T.”
  2. Move both knees toward your chest. Lower your knees to the right, and turn your head to the left. Pause.
  3. Return to starting position. Repeat in the opposite direction.

Breathing exercises

Relaxation is a primary component of IBS management.

To promote relaxation, try slow and deep breathing. According to the 2015 study on yoga, this type of breathing increases your parasympathetic response, which reduces your response to stress.

You can try:

Diaphragmatic breathing

Also known as abdominal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing encourages deep and slow breathing. It’s a popular technique that promotes relaxation and calmness.

  1. Sit on your bed or lie flat on the floor. Put your hand on your belly.
  2. Inhale for 4 seconds, deeply and slowly. Let your belly move outward. Pause.
  3. Exhale for 4 seconds, deeply and slowly.
  4. Repeat 5 to 10 times.
Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is a relaxing breathing technique. It’s often done in combination with yoga or meditation.

  1. Sit in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Sit up straight. Breathe slowly and deeply.
  2. Bend your right index and middle fingers toward your palm.
  3. Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Slowly inhale through the left nostril.
  4. Close your left nostril with your right ring finger. Slowly exhale through the right nostril.
  5. Repeat as desired.

Exercises to avoid

High-intensity exercises aren’t recommended for IBS. Examples include:

  • running
  • high-intensity interval training
  • competitive swimming
  • competitive cycling

More intense activities can aggravate your IBS symptoms, so it’s best to avoid them.

How to prepare for a flare-up

If you’d like to exercise more often, it’s important to prepare for IBS flare- ups. This will make your workout more comfortable.

Follow these tips to prepare for IBS flare-ups before, during, and after exercise:

  • Bring OTC medication. If you’re prone to diarrhea, keep over-the-counter (OTC) anti-diarrhea medication on hand.
  • Avoid food triggers. When planning pre-workout and post-workout meals, avoid your dietary triggers. Be sure to get enough fiber.
  • Avoid caffeine. Though caffeine can fuel your workout, it can worsen IBS symptoms.
  • Drink water. Staying hydrated may help stool frequency and ease constipation.
  • Locate the nearest bathroom. If you’re exercising outside of your home, know where the nearest bathroom is before you start.

When to talk with a doctor

If you experience symptoms of IBS, or any change in bowel movements, visit your doctor.

You should also see a doctor if you have:

  • diarrhea at night
  • unexplained weight loss
  • vomiting
  • difficulty swallowing
  • pain that isn’t relieved by bowel movements
  • bloody stools
  • rectal bleeding
  • abdominal swelling

These symptoms may indicate a more serious condition.

If you’re diagnosed with IBS, ask your doctor about the best fitness routine for you. You can also talk to a personal trainer. They can suggest an appropriate regimen for your symptoms, fitness level, and overall health.

The bottom line

If you have IBS, regular exercise can help manage your symptoms. The key is to choose low- to moderate-intensity activities, like walking, yoga, and leisurely swimming. Breathing exercises could also help by promoting relaxation.

In addition to physical activity, it’s also important to eat nutritious foods and get enough sleep. Your doctor can provide tips for practicing these lifestyle habits.

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