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Tips For Exercising with a Sensitive Gut

Laura Kunces, PhD, RD

Exercise can be a helpful way to help control gut motility and improve gut health, but too much of this good thing can actually increase the incidence of some GI issues, like cramps, diarrhea, and constipation, or increase instances of leaky gut. How does exercise exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? During exercise, your working muscles require much more blood flow and oxygen to keep them moving. Therefore, exercise requires your body to shunt blood away from the GI tract and towards your big muscles, like your legs, arms, back, head, face, and skin surface (for cooling). Blood is also shunted to areas where it is required for life – like your heart and brain. When there’s less blood flow in your GI tract, the result is delayed gastric emptying, which can be especially troublesome if you’ve recently eaten or are drinking fluids throughout your exercise routine.

But these potential negative effects should not stop you from getting the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of exercise each week. Use these tips to start an exercise routine that will keep your body healthy, your gut diverse, and your blood flowing.

Before A Workout

Keep a journal of your daily routine leading up to a workout. You will want to capture how you feel, what you’ve eaten so far, and what the workout plan is. This way, if something triggers a symptom, you may be able to pinpoint what it is that caused it.

You may want to try to workout fasted, like first thing in the morning when there is less chance that food or drink may cause your gut issues. If that doesn’t work for your routine, try to plan a meal at least two hours before a workout. This gives your body enough time to digest your meal but also properly fuel your upcoming workout. If you need to eat shortly before a workout, try simple foods or supplements, and aim to wait 60 minutes before starting your workout. Be sure to start exercise properly hydrated too. Your urine color should look like light lemonade, which will help exercise work capacity and body cooling as you heat up.

Exercise Recommendations

If you’re new to an exercise routine, be sure to start slowly and with a proper warmup. You may want to start doing a workout indoors, but with proper ventilation and cooling. Environmental heat (like hot yoga or outdoor exercise on a warm, sunny day) can contribute to GI upset. Be sure to stay hydrated, but avoid sugary sports drinks that can cause diarrhea. Sip on room temperature or cool water throughout your workout so you avoid guzzling a large volume of fluid at once.

Use a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale to monitor your workload. On a scale of 1-10, a 1 would be an exercise level that would allow you to sing; a 3 would signify a comfortable pace you can maintain for hours; a 5 is when heavier breathing begins; at 7 you are crossing over into hard work; and a 10 represents exercise you can only sustain for 20 seconds at best.

Consider the movements themselves. Up and down motion (like running) may cause more GI issues than recumbent biking, for example. Choose loose-fitting clothing that allows you to sweat properly and is comfortable around your waistline.

Weightlifting/resistance exercise may be your best option.

·Aim to maintain an RPE of 4 or below.

·Exercise in sets of 12-15 reps with 2-3 minutes of rest in-between each set.

·Try for 3-4 days/week and 30-45 minutes per workout.

Basic resistance training exercises such as squats, lunges, presses, rows are indicated as long as the weight stays moderate. Three sets of 8-12 reps of 4-5 different exercises would generally be appropriate. We’re all different, so monitor your RPE throughout and adjust the rest periods as necessary. Record any symptoms if they present.

If you begin to feel GI symptoms, limit the intensity and volume of training that day, and consider changing your intensity, volume, frequency, and duration of exercises for the coming days.

Yoga is an excellent option for many reasons. Its typically low-intensity, provides full-body strength, helps relieve the body of stress, promotes mindful thinking – and you can be close to a bathroom.

Cardiovascular exercise can be a good choice.

·Best options are low intensity: walking, hiking, cycling (outdoors or stationary). Until you know what triggers a problem, consider exercise near a bathroom in case of emergencies. 

·Maintain an RPE of 4 or lower.

·As symptoms diminish, training intensity and volume can slowly increase before increasing frequency and duration.

·Endurance exercise longer than two hours can be troublesome for many – with or without known GI issues. If this is your goal, work up to this slowly and with proper training.

Exercises to avoid:

·Swimming. Although movement in the water can be more comfortable, some public pools, lakes, or rivers have suboptimal water quality. Swallowing water with chlorine and/or bacteria could cause GI issues.

·Running at high intensity or engaging in any other movements that increase up and down movement and shunt more blood away from the gut can increase GI issues. Proceed with caution.

·High-intensity burpees, sled pushing, and rowing can exacerbate GI issues in some people. Work with a trainer to find whole-body exercises that are best suited for you.

After A Workout

Be sure to properly hydrate and refuel as soon as you feel up to it. Take sips of water until you’re hydrated and try to consume a source of protein (from a food or supplement source) within 30-60 minutes after exercise.

Use your exercise journal to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t. With proper nutrition, supplementation, lifestyle choices, and attire, you should be able to exercise regularly – and with confidence that your gut won’t be limiting you.