It turns out, a sweat session can leave you feeling pooped in more ways than one. In addition to all the other benefits of exercise, it can help ward off and treat constipation as it promotes activity in the digestive tract.
According to Shaham S. Mumtaz, MD, gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, people who have a regular workout routine defecate more quickly and easily than sedentary folks. Here, we dive into the connection between exercise and bowel movements.
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First, a 101 on digestion. "The GI tract is essentially one long tube, starting at your mouth and ending at your bottom," Dr. Mumtaz says. The action of food moving through the GI tract is called peristalsis. Along the way, your body secretes different types of acids and proteins to help you break down food into nutrients it can use for energy.
"Your stomach is responsible for digesting the food so that your small bowel can absorb the nutrients; meanwhile, your colon absorbs small amounts of liquid, primarily water," Dr. Mumtaz says. "Whatever is left over at the end of this process comes out as a bowel movement."
Do You Poop More When Working Out?
Unless you're constipated, exercise probably won't make you go more frequently. However, most people see a zippier digestion transit time and softer stool, which may make it seem like you're going more.
"You might get the urge to go more often, but you should be able to hold your bowels unless your rectum does not retain a lot of stool," Dr. Mumtaz says.
Good to know: The normal, healthy poop rate varies from once every other day to four or five bowel movements daily, depending on the individual (medications and underlying health issues can influence the frequency). On average, most people drop a deuce once or twice a day.
4 Ways Exercise Changes Your Bowel Movements
Working out can have some interesting side effects on your BMs.
1. You Digest Meals Faster
The time it takes food to make its way through your GI tract is influenced by a few different factors, including fiber content, the sensitivity of your bowels (for example, people with IBS will empty their bowels rapidly) — and amount of exercise you get.
"Studies have shown that activity level decreases colon transit time, meaning you will evacuate more quickly," Dr. Mumtaz says.
A small January 2012 study in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility found that women with moderate or high physical activity levels digested food faster than those who moved less.
Why does working out ratchet up digestion? "It is thought that the faster metabolism resulting from increased activity also stimulates your GI tract to move food through more quickly," Dr. Mumtaz says.
2. You’re More Regular
If you have trouble pooping, a lack of exercise might be to blame. "People who are less active tend to get constipated more frequently," Dr. Mumtaz says.
So to keep things moving smoothly, head to the gym. A June 2022 meta-analysis in Contemporary OB/GYN found that moderate and high levels of activity were associated with a lower risk of constipation and that getting more physical activity can help manage chronic constipation.
3. Your Poop Is Softer
The slower the rate of digestion, the longer stool spends hanging out in the colon —whose role, remember, is to absorb fluid. As a result, more fluid will be pulled out of the stool and it will become progressively drier, harder and more difficult to push out.
"Because exercise can stimulate the bowel to move more quickly, there might be more fluid content in the stool, promoting a softer consistency that is easier to get out," Dr. Mumtaz says.
If you find that exercise is making your poop more solid, instead of the other way around, you might be pushing yourself to the point of becoming dehydrated, according to Dr. Mumtaz.
"In that case, your stool may be harder because there's not much fluid in the colon to begin with," he says.
4. You Have Fewer GI Issues
An April 2019 review in Exercise and Sports Medicine Reviews suggests that regular aerobic exercise contributes to a robust and diverse gut microbiome, benefiting the good bacteria that live in our GI tract. A thriving gut microbiome can not only make your bowel movements more regular, but it can also improve overall digestive health.
"Exercise can decrease sensitivity of your bowels and can contribute to a healthier gut flora," Dr. Mumtaz says. "Many of my patients have noticed that when they increase their exercise levels they experience less bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort."
- University of Michigan Health System: Healthy Bowel Habits
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: What I Need to Know About Constipation
- Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust: Healthy Bowel Guide
- Mayo Clinic: Constipation
- Mayo Clinic: Frequent Bowel Movements
- Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility: "Colon transit time according to physical activity level in adults"
- Contemporary OB/GYN: "Meta-analysis suggests physical exercise levels matter in constipation management"
- Exercise and Sports Medicine Reviews : "Exercise and the Gut Microbiome: A Review of the Evidence, Potential Mechanisms, and Implications for Human Health"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Peristalsis"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Daily Bowel Care Program