Woman lying sideways experiencing stomach pains

Exercise and Digestion: How They're Related

Digestive issues are aspects of personal health and wellness that are rarely talked about but incredibly common. From bloating and irregular bathroom habits to ulcers, digestive problems can not only be annoying, but they can also be debilitating when not looked after.

Exercise is not only a fantastic form of self care and a way to gain control of your health and wellness, but it also may be able to help you care for your colon health, aid digestion, and prevent any issues from developing. Read on to learn more about how exercise and digestion are related, and don’t forget to check out the infographic on digestive-friendly moves and even more ways to care for your digestive health.

Benefits of Exercise for Your Digestive Health

We all know that exercise is important to keep us healthy and active, but the truth is that it can do more than just improve general health and wellness. Taking control of your health through exercise doesn’t have to be reserved as a New Year’s health resolution — it can be something you start as soon as today.

There are several benefits of exercise when it comes to your digestive system — read on to learn more.

1. Improves Bowel Movements

Whether your bowel movements are too frequent or few and far between, having an irregular bathroom schedule can be frustrating or even indicative of a larger problem. Generally, daily or twice daily bowel movements are indicative of a healthy digestive tract. If you’re looking to regulate those movements and get back on track, exercise may be able to help — particularly if you have a digestive condition like IBS.

In a 2008 study[1], participants with diagnosed IBS reported greater constipation relief after 12 weeks of frequent exercise than participants who did not exercise regularly. Another study[10] found that exercise not only improved digestive-related symptoms in patients with IBS, but also improved their overall quality of life—reducing symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and fatigue.

Note that while gentle exercise can help bowel movements, other exercises like running can lead to an increased frequency of digestive issues, such as diarrhea[2], due to an increase in gastric mobility. Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing irregular bowel movements.

2. Regulates Hunger Hormones

Ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone[3], is what sends signals from your stomach to your brain that it’s time to eat. This amount of this hormone can decrease[4] following exercise, depending on intensity, meaning that a 20-minute treadmill run may help you not feel as hungry.

This happens due to the stress response that moderate to intense exercise causes within the body. Your body is focusing on pumping blood to your heart and muscles during exercise, so it downplays hunger until the stress response is over (generally, after you cool off and when your heart rate has returned to normal).

3. Helps Composition of Digestive Microbiome

Right now there are about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria[5] living inside your stomach and digestive tract, collectively making up what is called your “gut microbiota.” When everything in your stomach and digestive tract is going well, all the bacteria are working together to help everything along. When you have a digestive issue, then bad bacteria can take over and throw your microbiota off-kilter.

Regular exercise can help keep this balance between good and bad bacteria, along with keeping your intestinal walls strong to fend off bacteria, food, or other parasites from causing inflammation in the digestive tract. Though studies are still being conducted on exactly how exercise can help the microbiota, exercise training[6] was found to regulate gut microbiota in obese study participants in 2018.

Additional Benefits of Exercise for Your Colon Health

Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths[7] for both men and women in the U.S. This sobering statistic proves that early detection and prevention are key, and studies show that exercise may be able to lower your risk of developing colon cancer.

A 2019 study[8] of 70,403 men and 80,771 women found that engaging in regular physical activity resulted in a 24% decrease in colon cancer risk and can prevent around 15% of colon cancers.

In this study, exercise decreased the risk of polyp development throughout the entire colon, regardless of a specific area of the colon. In another study, exercise was reported to decrease the total number of intestinal polyps by 50% and the number of large polyps by 67%. Doctors are still studying exactly why this occurs and what the recommended exercise dosage is to prevent developing this type of cancer.

Along with exercise, additional lifestyle measures such as specific diets and monitoring alcohol consumption may help reduce your risk of contracting colon cancer. If you’re 45 or older and/or have been diagnosed with an irritable bowel disease (such as IBS, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn's disease), you may want to consider an at-home FIT test to detect if you’re at risk for developing colon cancer. Speak with your doctor if you have questions on colon cancer or if you’re genetically predisposed.

8 Best Exercises for Digestion

Now that you’re familiar with exactly how exercise is good for your digestion and how it may even help prevent colon cancer, it’s time to break a sweat and feel the benefits. Gentle stretches and exercise, such as yoga poses, can help your body relax especially if you’re experiencing high levels of stress.

Due to the gut being known as the “second brain,” your gut can react to high levels of psychological and physical stress with physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, diarrhea, nausea, constipation, or changes in appetite or digestion.[11] It’s believed that yoga and gentle exercise aid overall digestive health by reducing stress, increasing overall circulation, and promoting activity of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

In particular, those with IBD may benefit from yoga, especially during high-stress periods of time. A 2018 study of 208 participants with IBS found improvements in IBD symptoms after 12 weeks of either yoga or a low-FODMAP diet.[12] When coupled with regular treatment and care, scientists believe that gentle stretches and exercise may play a complementary role in treatment for IBD and other digestive diseases.

These digestion-friendly exercises are mainly stretches that target your core, lower back, hips, and abdomen, so feel free to make any adjustments necessary to fit your needs. If you’re curious about other exercises for overall health, check out our guide to heart-healthy exercises you can do from your desk.

As always, check with your doctor to see if these exercises are right for you and your condition before participating.

1. Twist (Matsyendrasana)

  • Benefits: Activates your core to get things moving in your digestive tract
  • Best for: When you’re feeling constipated or having a blockage

This standard twist is an easy, beginner-friendly stretch that can help relieve pain felt by a blockage in your system. Begin by laying flat on your back on a yoga mat, bed, or other cushioned surface.

  1. Bend both knees into your chest, then cross over to the left side of the body so your left leg is flush with the ground.
  2. Extend your arms into a “T” position and turn your head to look toward the right
  3. Remain in position for 30 seconds or longer. It’s common to hear your back crack in this pose.
  4. Using your core, lift your knees back to center and repeat on the other side, turning your gaze to the left.
  5. Repeat two to three times on each side.

matsyendrasana-pose-for-digestion

2. Knees to Chest (Apanasana)

  • Benefits: Releases pressure from your stomach and digestive tract
  • Best for: Relieving gas or bloating pain

Also known as the “wind-relieving” pose, this may be the perfect stretch for you if you regularly experience painful gas buildup or pain from bloating. Start by laying flat on your back on your bed or mat with your knees bent, with your palms on your knees.

  1. Inhale once, and when exhaling lift your knees and hug them to your chest.
  2. Gently rock your knees from side to side to deepen the stretch in your stomach and lower back.
  3. Stay in this position for five to 10 breaths, then slowly release your knees back to the ground.
  4. Repeat two to three times.

apanasana-pose-for-digestion

3. Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana)

  • Benefits: Allows your stomach to relax
  • Best for: Providing relief after a big meal or digestive flare-up

The happy baby pose is a simple yoga pose that allows you to stretch your legs and arms while being gentle on your core. Begin by laying flat on your back, preferably on a yoga mat or other cushioned surface.

  1. Bend both knees and hold onto the outside of your feet, keeping your arms outside of your legs.
  2. Use your upper body to gently but equally press both knees to the ground below your armpits. Keep your upper body relaxed and don’t tense your shoulders or chest.
  3. Remain in this position for five to 10 deep breaths, then repeat two to three times.

ananda-balasana-pose-for-digestion

4. Seated Forward Fold (Utkata Paschimottanasana)

  • Benefits: Allows you (and your stomach) to relax, which can prevent stress from affecting your digestive tract
  • Best for: Before eating a big meal or to get ahead of any digestive issues

This is a good stretch to perform preventatively if you regularly experience digestive issues, or if you’ve been having a flare-up and want some relief. Start by sitting on the ground on a yoga mat, or on your bed, with your legs straight out in front of you.

  1. Keeping your back straight, hinge forward at the hips and lower your torso until flush with your legs, or as far as you can.
  2. Remain in this position for five to 10 deep breaths.
  3. When done, slowly lift your head and torso up until you’re sitting upright.
  4. Repeat two to three times.

ananda-balasana-pose-for-digestion

5. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

  • Benefits: Increases energy and relieves pressure from lower back
  • Best for: When feeling sluggish or experiencing pain in your back

Your lower back can take a lot of the heat that comes from digestive issues, leading to pain or discomfort. The bridge pose can not only energize you on a slow day, but it can also help relieve some of that discomfort. Start by laying flat on your back on a mat or your bed with your knees bent.

  1. Keeping your arms beside you and feet flat on the ground, move your hips up as far as you’re comfortable so your back and hips are in the air but upper back and head are on the ground.
  2. Hold for five to 10 breaths, then slowly lower your hips back to the ground.
  3. For a modification that helps relieve hip pain, do this one hip at a time.
  4. Repeat two to three times.

setu-bandha-barvangasana-pose-for-digestion (1)

6. Extended Wide Squat (Malasana)

  • Benefits: Opens hips up and squeezes belly for lower back and hip relief
  • Best for: Providing hip and back relief during a flare-up

This pose can help provide relief for your hips or lower back when having a digestive flare-up. Start by standing on a mat or cushioned surface with your feet slightly wider than your hips.

  1. Bend your knees, slowly lowering your hips down to the ground. Use the edge of your yoga mat or a blanket to stabilize yourself if your heels don’t sit flat on the ground.
  2. Bringing your palms together at your heart, firmly press your elbows against the inside of your knees to open your hips wide.
  3. Remain in position for five to 10 breaths.
  4. When done, release your hands to the floor and walk them away from your feet. This should deepen the stretch in your hips and lower back.
  5. Hold pose for another five to 10 breaths.
  6. Repeat two to three times.

malasana-pose-for-digestion

7. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

  • Benefits: Puts gentle pressure on your stomach to encourage digestion
  • Best for: When experiencing digestive blocks

The cobra pose is a common yoga pose that helps lengthen the spine while putting some needed pressure on your stomach to help with any digestive issues. Start flat on your belly with your arms extended on your bed or yoga mat.

  1. Keeping your legs and pelvis on the ground, walk your hands toward your chest and slowly lift your torso up, keeping a bend in your elbows.
  2. Walk your hands in until you feel a stretch in your core, relaxing your shoulders away from your ears and lengthening your neck.
  3. If it’s comfortable, lower your head back between your shoulders for a stretch in your neck and chest.
  4. Stay in this position for up to 30 seconds, slowly lowering your torso back to the ground when done.

bhujangasana-pose-for-digestion

8. Seated Heart Opener Pose (Vajrasana)

  • Benefits: Stretches your belly for pain relief
  • Best for: When experiencing gas or bloating pains, or after eating a big meal

This simple-but-effective pose helps stretch your stomach, which can provide relief when gas pain or bloating has got you down. Start by sitting on your shins on a yoga mat or bed.

  1. Interlace your hands behind you, pressing the heels of your hands together.
  2. Pull your pressed palms down to the ground, opening up your chest and shoulders.
  3. Stay in this position for five to 10 breaths.
  4. For a deeper stretch, place your hands on the floor with your fingertips pointing away from your body.

vajrasana-pose-for-digestion

In addition to exercise, there are several other habits you can pick up to try to keep everything running smoothly. Caring for your digestive tract starts in the kitchen for many, such as eating prebiotic- and probiotic-rich foods (such as kombucha and kimchi) along with healthy fats (like salmon) and fiber (found in fruits and vegetables). Consider keeping a food journal to log what you eat and if you have a reaction to detect any possible food sensitivities.

An easy but important habit to maintain to help regulate your digestive system is drinking enough water throughout the day. Digestive problems can cause dehydration, as can exercising without hydrating properly.

Though the exact amount of water you should drink per day varies from person to person, it’s generally recommended to drink two to three cups of water per hour[9], or 15.5 cups per day for men, 11.5 cups per day for women — though this number should increase if you’re outside on a hot day or exercising.

Caring for your digestive health doesn’t have to look like juice cleanses or eating turmeric by the spoonful. Through exercise, other healthy lifestyle habits, at-home lab testing options for food sensitivities or colon cancer, and advice from your doctor or other medical professional, you can take back control of your digestive health instead of letting it control you.

The tips provided in this article are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment of other gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or gastroenteritis. It is recommended to seek the advice of a medical professional or qualified healthcare provider if you have additional questions or concerns about your condition.

how-exercise-aids-digestion-ig (1)

Article sources:

  1. Daley AJ, Grimmett C, Roberts L, Wilson S, Fatek M, Roalfe A, Singh S. The effects of exercise upon symptoms and quality of life in patients diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome: a randomised controlled trial. Int J Sports Med. 2008 Sep;29(9):778-82. Doi: 10.1055/s-2008-1038600. Epub 2008 May 6. PMID: 18461499.
  2. de Oliveira EP. Runner's diarrhea: what is it, what causes it, and how can it be prevented? Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 2017 Jan;33(1):41-46. doi: 10.1097/MOG.0000000000000322. PMID: 27798441.
  3. Pradhan, Geetali et al. “Ghrelin: much more than a hunger hormone.” Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care vol. 16,6 (2013): 619-24. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e328365b9be
  4. Vatansever-Ozen, Serife et al. “The effects of exercise on food intake and hunger: relationship with acylated ghrelin and leptin.” Journal of sports science & medicine vol. 10,2 283-91. 1 Jun. 2011
  5. Quigley, Eamonn M M. “Gut bacteria in health and disease.” Gastroenterology & hepatology vol. 9,9 (2013): 560-9.
  6. Allen JM, Mailing LJ, Niemiro GM, Moore R, Cook MD, White BA, Holscher HD, Woods JA. Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018 Apr;50(4):747-757. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001495. PMID: 29166320.
  7. American Cancer Society. “Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer.” American Cancer Society, 2021, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/about/key-statistics. Accessed 21 July 2021.
  8. Oruç, Zeynep, and Muhammed Ali Kaplan. “Effect of exercise on colorectal cancer prevention and treatment.” World journal of gastrointestinal oncology vol. 11,5 (2019): 348-366. doi:10.4251/wjgo.v11.i5.348
  9. Harvard Health Publishing. “How much water should you drink?” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, March 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-much-water-should-you-drink. Accessed 21 July 2021.
  10. Johannesson, Elisabet et al. “Intervention to increase physical activity in irritable bowel syndrome shows long-term positive effects.” World journal of gastroenterology vol. 21,2 (2015): 600-8. doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i2.600
  11. Foster, Jane A et al. “Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome.” Neurobiology of stress vol. 7 124-136. 19 Mar. 2017, doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2017.03.001
  12. Sharma, Purnima et al. “Effect of Yoga-Based Intervention in Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease.” International journal of yoga therapy vol. 25,1 (2015): 101-12. doi:10.17761/1531-2054-25.1.101

Infographic sources:

  1. Manhattan Gastroenterology. “How Exercise Affects Your Digestion.” Manhattan Gastroenterology, 2020, https://www.manhattangastroenterology.com/exercise-affects-digestion/. Accessed 21 July 2021.
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