Susan C. Male, R.D.

Suffer from stomach pain due to heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? Then get movin'. Prevailing wisdom suggests that a leisurely stroll can help keep food moving efficiently through your digestive tract. And the faster it moves out of your stomach, the less of a chance there is you'll get heartburn. Exercise is also a crucial component to maintaining a healthy weight, which is key to managing heartburn. But the big excitement is a new study from Sweden -- the first to show that regular exercise can actually ease symptoms of IBS, while inactivity makes IBS symptoms worse.

Exercise Eases Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden gathered 102 people who suffered from the chronic cramping, constipation, diarrhea and/or other stomach pain typical of IBS. None of them were active exercisers to begin with. As part of the study, half continued with their usual sedentary lifestyles, while the other half engaged in moderate to vigorous exercise for 20 to 60 minutes, three to five days a week. This included such physical activities as:

- Walking

- Running

- Cycling

- Swimming

After three months, the active group enjoyed a significant decrease in the severity of their IBS symptoms, plus improved quality of life -- including feeling happier, sleeping better and enjoying social activities more. The inactive group, on the other hand, actually saw their symptoms worsen.

Why might exercise be so effective at treating stomach pain due to IBS? "Physical activity affects stress levels via the central nervous system, which might have a positive effect on ... signals between the gut and the brain," explains Elisabet Johannesson, a registered physiotherapist and lead investigator of the study. "Physical activity also has positive effects on constipation and gas," which can further ease IBS symptoms, she adds.

Exercise Tips for People With Stomach Pain

To get the most digestive benefits from exercise, aim to get 20 to 60 minutes of some form of physical activity three to five days a week. Give yourself time to get used to your new routine! And keep in mind the following advice:

Even a little exercise helps

You don't have to become a triathlete to beat IBS! The study's results suggest that even light to moderate activity may be enough. Be aware, though, that if you're already very active, adding more exercise might not help, adds Johannesson.

Do something you enjoy.

Rather than focusing on intensity, Johannesson stresses consistency. Toward that end, "it's important to try different types of activities," she says. "To be motivated to exercise, it's important that it is convenient and that it's something you like to do -- or at least not dislike."

Don't exercise on a full stomach.

If you choose a vigorous activity, be sure to wait two hours after eating before you exercise. This is particularly important if you suffer from heartburn, since vigorous exercise on a full stomach can make acid reflux worse. Heartburn-sufferers may also do better sticking to activities that keep their body vertical, like walking and cycling.

Being inactive is not a healthy way for anyone to live -- and we now know that's especially true if you have digestive woes. Exercise can help you manage your weight, which is key to minimizing heartburn. And now it's been proven an effective treatment for stomach pain caused by IBS, while a couch-potato lifestyle is sure to make it worse … just one more reason to get outside and move!


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