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Image of a couple jogging

Why exercise is good for your digestive system

Everyone knows that exercise is great for fitness and emotional wellbeing, but it also plays a crucial role in keeping your digestive system healthy.

Keeping active relieves stress and helps maintain a healthy weight two things that can affect digestion. It also helps relieve digestive complaints, such as constipation and bloating, and allows your body to absorb nutrients more effectively.

Your digestive system

Our digestive system is responsible for breaking down food and providing energy to the rest of the body.

Food is moved through the digestive system by a mechanism called peristalsis, where two sets of muscles in the walls of the gut contract and propel food along.

Digestion time - which starts from when you've eaten to when the waste is excreted - varies for all of us, although it is slower in women than men. Some research suggests that it takes on average 33 hours for men and 47 hours for women.

How exercise affects digestion

As well as stress and an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to a whole range of digestive disorders, such as constipation, bloating, and wind.

Regular physical activity stimulates the gut, whilst increasing intestinal activity, so digestive problems are prevented. It increases blood flow to all your muscles, and this keeps the muscles in the digestive system moving, allowing food to pass through it much quicker, even when you're resting.

Because exercise can help ease stress, it may be beneficial for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A study, published by The American Journal of Gastroenterology,1 found that physical activity improves symptoms of IBS. It also decreases the risk of gallstones forming. Being overweight increases the risk of developing gallstones as it raises the amount of cholesterol in bile, which in turn increases the risk of gallstones.

Exercise enhances gut flora

New research suggests exercise can even affect the balance of bacteria in your gut, which is home to more than 100 trillion types of friendly bacteria. This gut flora plays an active role in protecting our immune system, the body's natural defence that keeps us healthy. It also inhibits the growth of more harmful bacteria, and helps to digest food and absorb essential nutrients.

A study, published in the journal Gut found that exercise enhanced the diversity of microbes in the gut.2

Six ways to improve your digestive health

The good news is that anyone can do simple exercises every day to improve their gut health. Here are our top tips to ensure your digestive system is running smoothly:

  • Get moving: Try and be physically active every day, even if it's just a walk.
  • Try yoga: This is one of the most beneficial exercises for digestive health. Some yoga poses such as twists and forward bends can relieve problems such as constipation. A study, published by Psychology, Health & Medicine, found that yoga significantly reduced the severity of IBS symptoms.3
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet: Get more fibre in your diet from a variety of sources. Fibre-rich foods include cereals, wholemeal or granary breads, potatoes with their skin on, pulses and fresh or dried fruit.
  • Drink plenty of fluids: Keep drinking, especially water, as this also encourages waste to be passed through the digestive system and helps prevent constipation.
  • Practise deep breathing: One study, published by the American Journal of Gastroenterology, found that abdominal breathing exercises can strengthen the diaphragm and improve symptoms of acid reflux.4
  • Choose gentler exercise: Mild to moderate exercise may be better for your digestive system than vigorous workouts. A review, by Sports Medicine, found that vigorous exercise is not always as beneficial and digestive disorders, such as diarrhoea, incontinence and rectal bleeding are surprisingly common with runners.5

Jo Waters is a health writer who has contributed to a variety of newspapers and magazines including the Daily Mail, Mirror, Nurture Magazine and the Express.

See more of Jo Waters' work.

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