On the list of all the body-loving benefits you get from exercise, a regular digestive system is one expected perk. But if you're clocking your daily workout sessions and finding this is not the case, there could be several reasons why things aren't (ahem) moving as smoothly as you'd like.
Exercise and Constipation Explained
"When it comes to the bowels, exercise most commonly stimulates a bowel movement," says Niket Sonpal, MD, a gastroenterologist and associate program director of internal medicine residency at Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.
"There is little evidence that it can cause constipation or diarrhea directly. However, becoming dehydrated and not hydrating enough can lead to constipation because the stool does not have enough water. Good poops mean enough water and fiber," Sonpal says.
So even though exercise tends to have the opposite effect of constipation on most people, if you're finding yourself backed up more often than not post-exercise, you may want to make sure you're staying hydrated (especially if you're sweating a lot) and also make sure you're eating enough fiber.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, adults and children alike should get 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day, but most people only consume half that amount. When it comes to hydration, many people fail to drink enough water, especially when exercising, which can cause you to lose fluids and become dehydrated. To stay well hydrated, women should drink about 11.5 cups of fluids a day, and men should drink 15.5 cups daily, suggests the Mayo Clinic.
"Getting enough hydration and fiber each day is the best way to prevent constipation and treat it," Dr. Sonpal says. "If this fails, then you should see your doctor."
Read more: How Can I Tell When My Body Is Hydrated?
Prevent Exercise and Stomach Issues
It never hurts to cover your bases with the basics, nutritionally speaking. And don't underestimate the power of drinking plenty of water — dehydration is a risk factor for constipation, according to the Mayo Clinic. And if you're working out at a high level without replenishing fluids, you could become dehydrated.
Other steps you can take include eating more fiber and having a healthy diet overall, with plenty of whole foods. It's better to get the fiber from food rather than supplements, notes Harvard Health Publishing. Examples of foods high in fiber include cauliflower, carrots, berries, nuts and seeds. However, it's best to gradually increase your fiber intake, adds Harvard Health, because overdoing it quickly can lead to more stomach distress.
Also, it's important to avoid foods that can potentially trigger digestive issues for you, especially around your workouts. Sometimes pinpointing these foods takes trial and error or more advanced testing if you're having trouble uncovering the issue on your own.
Exercise, Stress and Digestion
If you've ruled out underlying digestive issues, food and nutrition problems and think you're getting plenty of water and fiber, there's another potential culprit: stress.
If you're experiencing high amounts of stress in your day, whether it's at work or in your personal life, your digestive system may respond to that stress, explains Harvard Health Publishing. Even if you're not emotionally or mentally stressed out, intense exercise, in a way, is a form of stress on your body.
When your body is in a stressed-out state, the "fight or flight" response is triggered, which means your digestion is slowed, Harvard Health points out. Often this means sluggish bowels or constipation. And you don't have to be under severe forms of stress for your digestive system to be affected.
The answer could be as simple as trying some forms of relaxation therapy, from listening to soothing music to visualization techniques, like closing your eyes and picturing a happy place. If that doesn't help enough, you might want to investigate one-on-one therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to learn how to change thought patterns that distress you or even hypnosis, suggests Harvard Health Publishing.
Is This an Emergency?
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Stress and the Sensitive Gut"
- Niket Sonpal, MD, gastroenterologist and associate program director for internal medicine residency, Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Fiber"
- Mayo Clinic: "Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Constipation"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Should I Be Eating More Fiber?"