Why Walking Is One of the Best Exercises for Anyone Who Falls on the IBS Spectrum

Photo: Stocksy/Kristine Weilert
The path to good gut health may look a little different for everyone, but it doesn't have to be complicated. Find out how to balance your microbiome, manage digestive conditions, and keep your gut on the up and up, and hear from people who've dealt with GI issues and come out the other side. Get Your Gut Check

If we were matchmakers that made connections between social media trends we thought would go well together, this summer, the power couple we’d be rooting for has to be—the irritable bowel girl, ahem, movement on TikTok and the #HotGirlWalk hashtag on Instagram. Together, they could not only raise awareness about the prevalence of IBS among young women, but also give anyone who falls on the irritable bowel syndrome spectrum the motivation to engage in one of the best exercises for IBS: walking.

“If you have a chronic gastrointestinal disorder, like irritable bowel syndrome, exercise can be a great way to maintain overall health, encourage your gut muscles to behave more predictably, and help you digest better,” says Erin Hendriks, MD, a physician and functional medicine practitioner at the gut health-focused virtual health clinic, Salvo Health. “The best kind of exercise for people with IBS is low-to-moderate level aerobic exercise that avoids any abrupt motions that could trigger symptoms.”

Experts In This Article
  • Erin Hendriks, MD, board-certified family physician and functional medicine practitioner with an expertise in gut health

Dr. Hendriks explains there are many aspects of low-impact exercise that can specifically help people with IBS. In fact, research shows that “when IBS patients increase their physical activity levels, they typically reap rewards in the form of better health and IBS symptom management.”

The benefits of low-impact aerobic exercise for people with IBS

  1. Soothing stress, which can reduce IBS symptoms since gastrointestinal issues are linked to stress.
  2. Promoting a good night’s sleep, which prevents flare ups.
  3. Having both anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can lower systemic inflammation and improve symptoms of IBS.

Besides walking, other examples of low-impact exercise include cycling, pilates, or swimming. Dr. Hendriks specifically recommends hiking, because the soothing affects of being in nature along with the exercise will do double duty on reducing stress. While engaging in low-to-moderate impact exercise, your breathing should get faster, but you should still be able to have a conversation.

Exercises people with IBS should avoid

“Not every kind of aerobic activity is a great fit for IBS,” Dr. Hendriks says. “Some forms of exercise are just too abrupt, with too many jumping or lurching motions that could upset your gastrointestinal system and potentially make your abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and other symptoms worse.”

Dr. Hendriks recommends generally avoiding lurchy activities like CrossFit, long distance running, HIIT, and fast martial arts. But she says if you are passionate about these forms of exercise, you can always modify the activity. For example, in a HIIT class, change jump squats to squats with heel raises. Or if you love running, look for routes that have less impact on your body than pavement, like trails or grass, or run at a slower pace.

Here’s a low-impact HIIT workout you’ll want to throw into the mix: 

Overall, Dr. Hendriks says that people should not confuse low-impact aerobic activity for easy activity—it can still be high intensity. It just means you’re doing the sort of exercise that is best for your particular body. “Being kind to yourself but consistent about taking care of your fitness helps with both your IBS and your overall quality of life,” she says.

—reviewed by Jennifer Logan, MD, MPH

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