The IBS Exercise Challenge: Is Exercise Friend or Foe?
By Peter Marino, MS, CPT, CHC 
Peter Marino is a highly qualified health coach with a passion for helping individuals achieve their health and wellness goals. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Athletic Training from Brooklyn College and has completed extensive study on Nutrition at Hunter College. Peter is currently pursuing an MS in biotechnology to keep up with the latest technology trends in the health and fitness industry.

Can something as simple as exercise be a trigger for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) flare-ups? It's a question that has caused confusion and frustration for many IBS sufferers. Some turn to exercise as a means of improving their symptoms, while others find that certain kinds of physical exertion may seem to trigger bowel issues.

The relationship between exercise and IBS is complex and multifaceted. So, the question remains - can exercise help or trigger IBS flare ups? Let's take a closer look.

As a man with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I always struggled to strike a balance between living an active life and avoiding my dreaded IBS symptoms. It wasn't until a few years ago when I stumbled upon a research paper that I had to rethink my belief that exercise is a trigger for IBS and understand that it can actually help it when done properly (Johannesson et al., 2015).

On the one hand, I always knew that regular exercise was vital for my overall well-being. On the other hand, I also knew that pushing myself too hard could lead to painful cramps, bloating, and unpredictable bowel movements.

The more I read about the latest studies on the link between exercise and IBS, the more perplexed I became. Some experts claimed that moderate exercise could actually improve gut function and reduce inflammation. Others warned that intense workouts or sudden changes in physical activity could trigger IBS flare-ups. So, what's a person with IBS supposed to do? Is exercise a friend or foe when it comes to managing this debilitating condition? This article will explore the IBS exercise conundrum and shed some light on the latest research and expert advice.

Get ready for a bumpy ride...

Defining IBS and Exercise

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of those conditions that is difficult to fully understand. It is a gastrointestinal condition that can cause a range of symptoms, from bloating and gas to constipation and diarrhea. For many, it also means brain fog, altered mood, depression/anxiety, and general malaise (Rao et al., 2018).

And, as if managing the everyday unpredictability of IBS wasn't enough, now there is a new conundrum to contend with: exercise. Is it a friend or foe? The answer, as with most things in life, is not straightforward.

Research suggests that exercise can help alleviate some of the symptoms of IBS, such as bloating and constipation (Hajizadeh et al., 2018). But, as anyone who has experienced an IBS flareup can attest, exercise can also make things worse.

So, what's the bottom line? When it comes to IBS and exercise, it really depends on the individual. Some exercises may be helpful, while other forms are best avoided during an IBS flareup. The 2 forms of exercise that should be avoided are high intensity interval training (HIIT), and high level long distance endurance exercise i.e. marathons, long distance or high level cycling, rowing or swimming. The thought is that high intensity or high level endurance training impairs digestion which worsens IBS.

Benefits of Exercise for IBS

There's a ton of information out there about the benefits of exercise, but what about for individuals suffering from IBS - a condition that can cause cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating? It's a complex question that has no one-size-fits-all answer. On one hand, exercise can help improve gut motility and reduce stress, which are key factors in managing IBS symptoms.

On the other hand, certain types of exercise can exacerbate symptoms, especially if they involve high-impact movements or high intensity training that’s sustained for too long. So, what's the solution? Experts suggest starting slowly, exploring low-impact activities such as yoga or swimming, and avoiding high-intensity workouts.  Above all, listen to your body and don't push it too hard.

However, it's important to note that what works for one person may not work for another, so it's all about finding the right exercises to try for alleviating IBS.


Risks and Challenges of Exercise for IBS

Dealing with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be an extremely frustrating experience. With no known cure, those diagnosed must learn to manage symptoms, which include abdominal pain, bloating, and bowel changes.

While exercise is often touted as a way to improve overall digestive function and quality of life, for those with IBS, it's not always that simple. One study found that up to 40% of IBS sufferers experience worsened symptoms after exercise- leading to the question- is exercise really their friend? The conundrum of IBS and exercise highlights the need for a personalized approach.


Types of Exercise for IBS

It's no secret that exercise is crucial for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, both physically and mentally. However, for those living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the very thought of exercise can cause anxiety and panic.

It's a complex issue that requires personalized and careful consideration. The idea of being constrained and limited in workout routines is perplexing for someone who values their fitness journey; however, the fear of triggering IBS symptoms can be just as paralyzing. Consider trying some stretches to alleviate IBS, such as the seated spinal twist or the reclined spinal twist explained below.

Seated Spinal Twist

• In a seated position, stretch your left leg, cross your right leg over it, and place your right foot flat against your left knee.
• Next, flex your left knee and place your left foot outside of your right hip.
• Stretch out your spine and sit squarely on both hips. • Your torso should slowly rotate toward the right leg. You can either bring your left elbow over your right thigh and squeeze your outer right leg into your upper arm, or you can hold your right knee with your left arm.
• To assist press the breath out evenly, steadily bring your navel toward your spine as you exhale.
• With each exhalation, you might discover that you can twist a little bit further, but for purposes of IBS relief do not. This exercise is meant to increase circulation and relieve tension in the torso.
• Hold for 10-15 seconds and repeat on other side. Perform 2-3 rounds.

Reclined Spinal Twist

• Lay on your back, legs bent, and feet flat on the floor to start. For added neck support, you might lay your head on a pillow or blanket. Put your arms at your sides and relax.
• Draw your knees to your chest and encircle them with your hands as you exhale. Panasana, or Knee to Chest Pose, is this.
• While maintaining your right knee close to your chest, extend your left leg along the floor. Your palm should be facing down when you extend your right arm out toward the floor at shoulder height.
• Your hips should move a little to the right. the outside of your right knee with your left hand. As you exhale, cross your right leg across your left side of the body. Gently rest your left hand there.
• Hold for 15-30 seconds and repeat on both sides performing 2-3 rounds.

Finding Balance and Support

Can exercise help IBS? It's a question many sufferers have pondered over the years, driven by the desire to find a long-term solution to their daily struggles. Some say yes, while others insist that physical activity only exacerbates their symptoms.

The IBS exercise conundrum is a complex issue that requires a nuanced understanding of the condition itself, as well as the various factors that contribute to its manifestation. It’s not as simple as just choosing one side or the other about exercising with IBS. That's where finding balance and support comes in. From seeking out a knowledgeable healthcare provider to exploring alternative therapies like yoga or acupuncture, there are many paths to consider. Ultimately, the key to overcoming the IBS exercise riddle is to stay open-minded, patient, and persistent in the quest for relief.

In Closing

The question of whether exercise helps or triggers IBS flareups has no easy answer. While some studies suggest that exercise can improve symptoms, others indicate that it can cause flareups. So, is exercise a friend or foe for IBS patients? The answer is not as straightforward as we'd like it to be, and perhaps it's time for more research and solutions to explore the correlation between exercise and IBS.

The reality is that everyone's body is different and the effects of exercise on IBS are highly individualized. It's important to keep track of how your body responds to physical activity and adjust accordingly. Rather than avoiding exercise altogether or pushing yourself too hard, finding a middle ground that works for you can lead to positive outcomes. It's also important to work with a healthcare professional that specializes in IBS to develop a tailored treatment plan that addresses your unique needs. Having a health professional that has hands-on experience with IBS is your best solution for dealing with this condition in an efficient, personalized, and effective manner.


Hajizadeh Maleki, B., Tartibian, B., Mooren, F. C., FitzGerald, L. Z., Krüger, K., Chehrazi, M., & Malandish, A. (2018). Low-to-moderate intensity aerobic exercise training modulates irritable bowel syndrome through antioxidative and inflammatory mechanisms in women: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Cytokine, 102, 18–25.

Johannesson, E., Ringström, G., Abrahamsson, H., & Sadik, R. (2015). Intervention to increase physical activity in irritable bowel syndrome shows long-term positive effects. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG, 21(2), 600-608.

Rao, S. S. C., Rehman, A., Yu, S., & De Andino, N. M. (2018). Brain fogginess, gas and bloating: a link between SIBO, probiotics and metabolic acidosis. Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology, 9(6), 162. 

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