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Sports & Digestive Health

  • Exercise for Good Digestive Health


    Staying physically active could lead to improved flexibility and health, as the body adapts during exercise to become leaner and more efficient. The well-documented benefits of exercise on the gastrointestinal system are improved gut movement that helps in constipation, burning more energy that may help to reduce fatty deposit in the liver, the release of endorphins during exercise that promotes a sense of well-being and improves the mood, and an improvement in insulin sensitivity, which may help people with a fatty liver condition.

    However, exercise, especially in the form of strenuous or vigorous activity, may lead to repetitive usage of the abdominal muscles at the stomach area, and this in turn places pressure on the gastrointestinal tract, which includes the stomach, small and large intestines. This pressure may worsen certain gastrointestinal conditions. Here, we explore the effects of exercise on the gastrointestinal system, and the measures you can take while exercising if you have a gastrointestinal disorder.

    Effects of exercise on the gastrointestinal system


    The gastrointestinal system is made up of the oesophagus, stomach, liver, gall bladder, pancreas, small intestine and large intestine. It functions to digest the food, absorb nutrients and help remove waste from the body. Exercise brings many beneficial effects, like better glucose control in diabetic patients, better sleeping habits, stronger bones, and in relation to the gastrointestinal system, improved gut movement that helps prevent constipation. However, too much exercise, especially strenuous activity, may place too much stress on the gastrointestinal tract, and may worsen symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This may lead to nausea, diarrhoea, acid reflux, constipation and even cramps. It is important to understand why these symptoms may happen during exercise, and plan how you exercise in order to reduce discomfort.



    Research has shown that during strenuous exercise, there is a marked drop in blood flow to the stomach and intestines. This reduced blood flow may lead to a decrease in both nutrient absorption and water reabsorption in the intestines. Furthermore, the increased pressure within the abdomen caused by the contraction of the abdominal muscles during exercise may speed up the movement of food in the intestines and slow down digestion. This combination of partially digested food, together with water that has not been reabsorbed, may then result in diarrhoea and cramping.



    Heartburn is usually caused by acid reflux, which happens when the lower oesophageal sphincter (LES) muscle, located between the oesophagus and the stomach, relaxes at the wrong time. Exercising too soon after eating, and certain high impact activities like running may lead to a relaxation of this sphincter, resulting in more reflux episodes.

    Preventive care and treatment


    Altering the exercise routine may help to reduce mild and occasional symptoms during strenuous exercise. This can be done by either reducing the level of exertion or by switching to low-impact activities like brisk walking or yoga. However, persistent reflux or diarrhoea may be a sign of a severe underlying condition. Consult a doctor to understand the condition and the treatment options best suited to lifestyle needs.

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