ibs and exercise

Can Exercise Help IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a real pain (literally).

Around one in five Australians experiences the unpleasant symptoms of IBS, such as bloating, cramping, diarrhoea or constipation. Onset of symptoms typically occurs in early adulthood and more women than men are diagnosed with the condition. This is due to higher levels of the female hormone estrogen, which increases sensitivity of the gut.

Traditionally, IBS has been treated with medication and keeping a close eye on diet, however, not many people know that exercise can also be a winner.

How Exactly Can Exercise Help IBS?

Stress is one the main triggers for IBS symptoms in many people, and physical activity is a great antidote. Exercise reduces both physical and mental stress helping to manage symptoms and lessen the incidence of flare ups.

Additionally, research shows that there are higher levels of depression and anxiety reported in people that suffer from IBS. Exercise is a well-known treatment for improving mood symptoms without any of the side effect of medications.

What workouts are best?

  • Mind-body type exercises like yoga or Pilates can bring a lot of relief for those with stress induced IBS. When we feel under pressure our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive and the body doesn’t get a chance to ‘rest and digest’ which is when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. Meditation and exercise that incorporates deep breathing, like those mentioned above, can activate our relaxation response promoting better digestion and less mental and physical tension.
  • For those that suffer from constipation, exercise helps with motility in the gut, to reduce symptoms of bloating and help you go to the bathroom more easily. In other words, exercise gets everything moving!
  • Moderate intensity is best for IBS as high intensity exercise may (in some people) worsen symptoms. For example, activities such as jumping and sprinting can jolt the internal organs and since people with IBS have extra sensitive nerve endings, it can lead to diarrhoea, or cramping.


We all know that exercise is important, and is often the most under-utilised drug. If you do live with severe IBS symptoms I would highly recommend working with a professional, such as an accredited exercise physiologist who can put together a tailored plan to help you live a more active, and happier life.

Expert tip:

Monitor and listen to your body. Each one of us unique, and our bodies react in different ways so it is very much a case of ‘one size does not fit all’. Work out how your body reacts to different exercises and tailor what you do to your own needs.

For more information on how exercise can help you to manage IBS symptoms, contact your local accredited exercise physiologist.