There are several effects of exercise on the body that can positively alter digestive system functioning, such as an increase in endorphins, a reduction in stress level and speeding up of the metabolism. Exercise can even alleviate symptoms of digestive diseases and prevent constipation.
But like anything in excess, too much physical activity can have its drawbacks, such as stomach upset and an increase in stress hormones. Whether you're hitting the gym, stretching or running laps around the track, the digestive system may be affected, for better or for worse.
Overview of the Digestive System
The digestive system consists of the digestive tract (mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, anus) along with other organs that help in digestion, such as the tongue, pancreas and liver. During digestion, food and liquid are broken down into smaller parts, which the body then uses to build and nourish cells and supply energy. Your body requires nutrients to stay healthy, which is why digestion is so important.
Exercise can play a role in the process of digestion, in ways that can be both beneficial and, in rare cases, detrimental.
Positive Effects of Exercise on the Digestive System
There are several short-term effects of exercise on the digestive system, many of which are positive. Exercise can improve blood flow, relieve stress, regulate weight and speed up metabolism, which can all contribute to a healthy, well-functioning digestive system.
With the body in motion, blood flow increases. This can improve circulation in all areas of the body, including the digestive tract and enhance overall body functioning. Working up a sweat can also relieve stress. In fact, according to Harvard Health Publishing, exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, while stimulating endorphins, the body's mood elevators.
And when it comes to digestive diseases, exercise can relieve symptoms. In a 2018 study from the University of Gothenburg, it was found that increased physical activity improves gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. A 2014 study published in the journal "PLoS One" found that constipation could be prevented with exercise, as being too sedentary can slow down digestion.
An additional positive effect of physical activity on the digestive tract is that it can help control the metabolism. Cardio exercise speeds up your body's metabolism rate, so that you burn calories faster and your digestive system works overtime. Though note that the increase in metabolism rate and calorie burn lasts only as long as your workout. Once you stop, your metabolism goes back to resting rate.
Can Exercise Be Harmful to the Digestive System?
For the most part. exercise improves digestive function, that is, unless it's done in excess. A 2017 study from Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that as exercise intensity and duration rises, the likelihood of intestinal injury increases.
According to Dr. Sonya Rafatjah, too much exercise can cause elevations in stress hormones. She recommends taking at least one day off from strenuous exercise per week. Too much physical activity can also trigger an upset stomach for reasons like dehydration, eating too soon and vertigo.
Exercise for Better Digestion
Lack of physical movement can be hurting your digestive system, which is why you should exercise regularly. Most exercise, including yoga, cardio workouts and sports, can aid the digestion process. Research has found that yoga in particular can relieve the digestive system and can aid digestive functioning.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: Digestive System - An Overview
- Harvard Health Publishing: Exercising to Relax
- University of Gothenburg: Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Physical Activity
- NCBI: Physical Activity and Constipation in Hong Kong Adolescents
- MedlinePlus: Can You Boost Your Metabolism?
- Harvard Medical School: Healthy Mind, Healthy Body: Benefits of Exercise
- Wiley Online Library: Systematic Review: Exercise‐Induced Gastrointestinal Syndrome—Implications for Health and Intestinal Disease
- IAMJ: Effect of Yogasana on Digestive System
- PubMed.gov: Digestion, Absorption and Exercise