Exercise does all sorts of nifty things for your body. One particularly cool thing exercise can do? Create positive change to your digestive health. Exercise has proven effective for managing and preventing constipation and helping alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
3 Workouts That May Be Good for Digestion
If you're wondering what specific type of workouts can help with digestion, lower-intensity exercise, such as the following three workouts, generally offer the best benefits, both in the short- and long-term.
Because yoga involves bending, folding, arching, stretching and twisting the torso, it can have profound benefits on a person's digestion, says Kelly Clifton Turner, registered yoga teacher and director of education at YogaSix.
"All of those actions manipulate the internal organs, including the stomach and intestines, which can help 'move things along,' so to speak," says Clifton Turner. "That's one of the many reasons hearing someone break wind in class is not an uncommon occurrence."
Clifton Turner recommends a few particular poses that can help, whether performed at home or at the studio:
Move 1: Puppy Pose
This blend of downward facing dog and child's pose poises the hips as the highest point in the body, "which gives any trapped gas bubbles the perfect path to freedom," says Clifton Turner.
- Start on your hands and knees.
- Walk your hands forward as far as you can while keeping your hips aligned over your knees.
- Rest your forehead to the floor, and stay for 8 to 10 breaths.
Move 2: Seated Twist
Twists in yoga are known to be great for aiding digestion, Clifton Turner says, because the squeeze followed by the release mimics and amplifies the natural, wave-like contractions of the intestinal tract called peristalsis.
- Sit up tall with your legs crossed.
- Place your right hand to your left knee and your left hand on the floor behind you as you twist to the left.
- Hold for a few breaths before switching sides.
Move 3: Wind-Relieving Pose
This supine pose can help you get rid of any trapped gas in your abdomen, Clifton Turner says.
- Start by lying on your back.
- Draw one knee into your chest and clasp your hands around your shin (or behind your thigh if you can't quite reach).
- Stay in this position for a few deep breaths, then switch legs.
If you're feeling overstuffed after a meal, a short walk could expedite your trip to the bathroom. A March 2008 study from the Journal of Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease — which was groundbreaking at its time of publication — validated the large body of anecdotal evidence that going for a walk after a meal can speed up digestion.
The researchers compared the effects of espresso, an alcoholic digestif and walking on digestion and found that walking decreased transit time, while neither beverage helped at all.
Other studies, like a June 2013 study in Diabetes Care, show that walking post-meal can clear glucose from your bloodstream, which lowers your blood sugar and thereby helps move food through your system more efficiently — poorly controlled blood sugar and diabetes can lead to gastroparesis, or a condition in which food stays in the stomach too long, according to the Gastrointestinal Society.
More recently, an April 2016 study in the journal Medicine looked at the effects of a post-dinner walk in patients with gastric cancer. The researchers found that not walking between dinner and bedtime can significantly delay gastric emptying and increase digestive burden, especially in the elderly.
Patrick B. Wilson, PhD, RD, and assistant professor of human movement science at Old Dominion University, says people diagnosed with digestive disorders such as IBS, constipation or functional dyspepsia can obtain some relief from moderate aerobic activity like walking.
And as for that "gotta go" feeling, "In the colon, motility can actually go up, which may correspond to urges to use the restroom," says Dr. Wilson.
If you need to go but can't, go for a jog, says running coach Carol Aguirre, RD, LDN. Running at a steady, moderate pace can stimulate intestinal movement because cardio speeds up your breathing and heart rate, she says. And "intestinal muscles that are conditioned, or exercised, will help move bowel movements out quickly."
Like yoga, running can induce peristalsis, which is why many runners are familiar with that "Oh, crap" moment during a run. Aside from those physiological benefits of running, the actual jostling created by a good jog can encourage bowel movements. "All that movement up and down can agitate the digestive system and leave one the need to find a bathroom ASAP," Aguirre says.
Aguirre cautions, however, that very long runs and very high-intensity runs may add to gastrointestinal distress, so it's best to stick with a light jog if you're looking to improve digestion.
Read more: Best Teas for Bloating, Gas and Constipation
2 Workouts That Might Actually Hinder Digestion
Dr. Wilson encourages everyone to understand that while exercise offers ample benefits, it doesn't universally improve digestion in everyone. Acute exercise can pose a challenge to the gut, he says — particularly intense or prolonged exercise.
"In some people, [exercise] can have positive effects," Dr. Wilson says, "while in others, especially those who train very hard and at high volumes, it can actually cause more symptoms."
This happens because the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol at the onset of exercise shunts blood away from your visceral organs and toward your working muscles. "The more intense exercise is, the larger this shunting of blood is," he says.
1. High-Intensity Interval Training
"Acutely, high-intensity exercise is much more likely than mild exercise to cause symptoms during exercise itself," Dr. Wilson says. So if you're dealing with digestive discomfort already, hitting the treadmill for a sprint interval workout or throwing down at a CrossFit gym probably won't help.
And a June 2017 study from Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that the risk of intestinal injury increases as the intensity of exercise increases. This isn't to say that you shouldn't exercise — just to say that you should exercise cautiously and check in with a doctor if you have a history of digestive complications.
Read more: 5 Times HIIT Could Be Dangerous for You
2. High-Volume and Heavy Weight-Lifting
Likewise, lifting very heavy weights or performing very high volume weightlifting (like a bodybuilding workout) can perpetuate digestive discomfort, Dr. Wilson says. These types of training put a great deal of stress on the body, which can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, which in turn can lead to poor digestion.
Ultimately, says Dr. Wilson, the type of exercise that would best benefit your digestion depends on many factors: genetics, medical history, your goals and your current symptoms. There are many different causes of GI symptoms — diseases, medications, foods, stress and more — and if you experience consistent, bothersome issues, you should speak with your doctor.
- Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology: Exercise therapy in patients with constipation: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
- Department of Internal Medicine and Clinical Nutrition, Irritable bowel syndrome and Physical activity Institute of Medicine:
- Journal of Gastrointestinal Liver Disorders: Postprandial walking but not consumption of alcoholic digestifs or espresso accelerates gastric emptying in healthy volunteers.
- Diabetes Care: Three 15-min Bouts of Moderate Postmeal Walking Significantly Improves 24-h Glycemic Control in Older People at Risk for Impaired Glucose Tolerance
- GI Society: Diabetes and the Gut
- Medicine: The Effects of Dinner-to-Bed Time and Post-Dinner Walk on Gastric Cancer Across Different Age Groups
- Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics: Systematic review: exercise‐induced gastrointestinal syndrome—implications for health and intestinal disease