• By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

IBS? Take a Hike!

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive disorder characterized by abdominal pain, discomfort, bloating, and irregular bowel habits, but has no identifiable, physical cause. Up to 14% of Americans have IBS, so research suggesting that something as simple as a daily walk may relieve symptoms is welcome news.

Research suggests that a daily walk may relieve symptoms of IBS

Walking away from IBS symptoms

A total of 75 adults with IBS completed a 12-week study in which participants were randomly selected to increase their physical activity level or advised to continue with their typical level of activity (control group). Researchers collected information from all participants at the start and end of the study on the severity of IBS symptoms and issues that affect quality of life, such as sleep habits and energy levels.

Participants in the physical activity group received monthly telephone advice on physical activity from an exercise therapist and kept a training diary. The control group received supportive monthly phone calls, but no exercise advice. They were encouraged to maintain their normal lifestyle. After 12 weeks:

  • Severity of IBS symptoms in the physical activity group decreased significantly, compared with the control group.
  • More members of the control group reported an increase in the severity of their IBS symptoms.
  • Emotional health, sleep, energy, physical functioning, and physical and social roles improved significantly in the physical activity group.
  • The control group reported improvements in emotional health, diet, and social roles, but no improvements in other quality-of-life measures.

Going beyond IBS

Many people with IBS avoid physical activity because they don’t feel well, but this study suggests the relationship can be turned around: Instead of avoiding exercise because of symptoms, try avoiding symptoms with exercise!

This study included people with all three types of IBS: diarrhea dominant, constipation dominant, and mixed IBS with alternating diarrhea and constipation. This suggests that exercise can be helpful regardless of your personal symptoms. Use the following tips to help tame IBS:

  • Check in. If you are new to exercise, check with your doctor before increasing your physical activity level.
  • Start slowly. Very strenuous exercise may worsen symptoms, especially if you aren’t used to it. Try adding 20 minutes of walking into your day.
  • Enjoy it. The most common types of exercise performed by study participants were walking, cycling, swimming, jogging, and Nordic walking. This tells us that it doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do something.
  • Be prepared. If you suffer from diarrhea-dominant IBS and you’re fearful about being too far from a bathroom, consider doing laps around a local high school or YMCA track, where a public restroom is available. Parks with bathroom facilities also may be an option.
  • Stick to the plan. It’s tough to get started, but keeping your eye on the prize—increasing comfort by reducing IBS symptoms—will help you stay motivated. You may believe you can’t exercise because you feel poorly. Tell yourself, “I will exercise, so I don’t feely poorly.”

(Am J Gastroenterol Jan 4, 2011; published online before print; Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2005; 21:1365–75)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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