Exercise for Bowel Movement (Constipation, Diarrhea) Tips, Video
Exercise is well known for its health benefits and this applies to most parts of the body. In some cases exercise may even be helpful in treating and managing certain conditions. Disorders with bowel movement are one of the examples where exercise can be beneficial. It appears to work both for sluggish or difficulty bowel movements like in constipation or conditions where diarrhea may be present like in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, there are instances where exercise can actually cause or worsen problems with bowel habit but this is uncommon.
Why Exercise Helps Bowel Movements?
It takes up to 72 hours for food to pass all the way through the gut until the wastes are released as stool. This requires constant movement from the time food is swallowed until the stool is expelled during defecation. The movement is caused by tiny muscles in the wall of the gut. It contracts and relaxes to push the contents in the gut. Gravity also helps with movement to some degree.
Motion of the body, like when exercising, also helps with movement in the gut and bowels. It also works with increasing pressure within the abdomen as well as the effect of gravity when exercising, as compared to sitting or lying flat. There may be also other ways in which exercise helps, from tone of the muscles and nervous system to the circadian rhythm (biological clock).
Exercise and Bowel Habit
There is no clear definition of a normal bowel habit. However, it is broadly accepted that normal bowel habit means passing stool at least once daily without any difficulty. Abnormal bowel habit refers to constipation on one end and diarrhea on the other. Exercise is an important lifestyle factor in maintaining a normal bowel habit alongside diet.
Exercise for Constipation
Almost 1 in 5 Amercians suffer with chronic constipation. This is difficulty passing stool with less than three bowel movements in a week. Usually small amounts of stool are passed with straining and often the stool is hard. Most cases occur for unknown reasons although it appears that a combination of poor fiber intake, inadequate water consumption and a lack of physical activity are the main contributing factors to constipation.
Just about any exercise can be helpful for constipation. Even a brisk walk for 10 to 15 minutes is beneficial. Some people also find that abdominal exercises like sit-ups and ab crunches are particularly useful probably because these exercises increases pressure within the abdomen. Squatting exercises can also be useful as this helps the anal sphincters to relax as well as increases intra-abdominal pressure.
Exercise and Diarrhea
Moderate daily exercise may prove helpful in managing IBS with diarrhea. This may not just be a phsyiological benefit but a psychological benefit particularly with stress management. Similarly exercise may be helpful in autoimmune conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) where diarrhea is a prominent symptom. Here the benefits may not be directly for the bowel but rather the disturbances in immune function which causes bowel inflammation.
Exercise is not usually recommended when a person has diarrhea as it can worsen the dehydration, one of the main complications of diarrhea. Furthermore there are instances where strenuous physical activity may in fact be a cause of diarrhea as is seen with runner’s diarrhea. Similarly exercise should be avoided in viral infections where diarrhea is a symptom. Instead plenty of rest is more important until the infection resolves.
- Read more on diarrhea after exercise.
- Read more on runner’s diarrhea.
Exercise Tips To Help Bowel Movements
Always get the approval of a doctor before starting any exercise, particularly for people over 40 years of age, where there is a history of cardiovascular disease or associated risk factors. The key is to lead an active lifestyle and all physical activity can be helpful. It does not always require a specific exercise regimen. People who live a sedentary lifestyle will experience symptoms like constipation even when there is no underlying disease.
Since constipation is the abnormality in bowel habit that benefits most from exercise, the following tips apply mainly for constipation relief. People with abdominal hernias should first seek medical approval before exercising. Ensure sufficient water intake – exercise causes water loss mainly through sweating and constipation can worsen without sufficient water/fluid intake.
Video for Abdominal Exercises
The following video provides detailed instructions on abdominal exercises. While these abdominal exercises are primarily intended to strengthen and stabilize the back, it may also be beneficial for constipation relief.
The key to deriving the benefit of exercise in maintaining a healthy bowel habit is to exercise regularly. This specifically applies to daily exercise. Ideally a person should exercise between 120 to 150 minutes weekly, spread out over at 4 to 5 sessions of 30 minutes each. However, even shorter sessions of 10 to 15 minutes daily will benefit bowel habit and help with constipation relief.
Cardiovascular workouts, like running and swimming, are often touted as the exercises with the most health benefits. These activities are definitely beneficial for constipation relief but should be combined with strength training and stretching exercises for maximum benefit. Exercises can be alternated on a daily basis. Other activities like yoga may also be helpful as it combines some degree of strength training with stretching.
Exercise After Meals
The best time to exercise is after a meal. While light exercise like a walk can be done immediately after a meal, other types of exercises should only be done after waiting for an hour. If a meal was very large, it may be advisable to wait a little longer or even another hour. Drink plenty of water during and after a meal to help expedite movement through the gut. Stop exercising immediately if symptoms like nausea and dizziness arise.
Stop Exercising When Urging
If bowel urging occurs when exercising then it is best to stop the exercise and try to pass stool. The exercise can be continued after a bowel movement. Do not attempt to ignore the urge to continue exercising or passing stool at a time that is convenient. With constipation, this urge may not necessarily mean that defecation will occur but it helps with bowel training by responding to urges when it does occur.