Number two – the number one thing people think about if bowel movements are an unpleasant experience. It’s no fun to sit on the bathroom throne for a half hour praying for relief, nor is it enjoyable to deal with abdominal pain and bloating while going about your daily activities. When the digestive system isn’t working properly, it consumes our lives. If only there was a way to whip digestion into shape… perhaps exercise isn’t only good for shaping up external appearances. We will help you understand: “Does exercise improve digestion?”
Digestion, Indigestion & Constipation
Have you ever considered exactly how food moves through your body? The digestive system is an extremely important system in the body that allows nutrients to be absorbed and utilized to keep us running properly. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a major part of that system, but the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are also critical pieces. Digestion refers to the breakdown of food we eat into miniscule parts that are readily absorbed.
Indigestion on the other hand, is characterized by burning, bloating and discomfort often felt after a hearty meal with brownies that were too good to eat just one. Constipation and indigestion can occur together, but constipation more specifically refers to hard stools. It can be defined as having less than 3 bowel movements a week that are painful and difficult to excrete.
Constipation is quite prevalent in society. Of course, it doesn’t seem like it since who wants to talk about stool around others? But if you suffer from painful bowel movements, you might be reassured that around 20% of people experience constipation. More commonly, constipation occurs in elderly individuals, particularly women.4 Other factors that may increase one’s risk of developing long-lasting or chronic constipation are eating a low fiber diet, having other GI issues, and being on certain medications. So just because you aren’t a female or consider yourself elderly doesn’t mean you’re in the clear when it comes to moving stool through your colon.
Major Causes of Digestion Issues
We won’t get into the nitty-gritty science here, but the main causes of constipation include slow colonic transit and pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD).4 Colon transit time tends to decrease with age.4 Many times it can be attributed to medications that decrease motility. If stool is just moseying about and taking its grand old time to exit the body, you can imagine how one might become ‘plugged’ or ‘backed up.’
And the pelvic floor is just a fancy name for the muscles around your pelvis. It’s important because the pelvic floor is responsible for keeping bodily fluids in and releasing them when appropriate. These muscles need to be strong yet know how to relax when it’s go time. Unfortunately, this is one of the factors that make constipation more common in women since PFD can occur as a result of childbirth. Whether colon transit or the pelvic flood is impaired, stool isn’t moving through the gut as it should be.
How Does Exercise Improve Digestion?
Now that we’ve established constipation is troublesome, what can be done to counteract it? Many studies have found links between exercise and improved digestion. For instance, the Nurses’ Health Study showed physical activity was connected with a lower risk of constipation. Another study done in China reported similar results with constipation being associated with a lack of physical activity. We might be onto something here. Exercise seems to have a positive impact on constipation.
While the mechanisms behind exercise and better digestion are not fully understood, the idea is that physical activity increases gut motility as well as strengthening muscles around the colon and may result in higher fiber intake to replenish the increased calories lost. These all contribute to more bowel movements and a more enjoyable time in the bathroom among other places.
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Not all Exercise is Created Equal
There are specific types of physical activity that work best to combat constipation. To maximize exercise’s benefits for gut motility, one should choose aerobic exercise, as it has been found to give the greatest relief of constipation symptoms. Aerobic exercise or ‘cardio’ encompasses walking, running, biking, swimming – basically anything that gets your heart rate up. Most of the studies had individuals participate in 140 minutes or more of aerobic exercise each week. And the bright side is that the aerobic exercise doesn’t need to be of crazy intensity like running ten miles or a HIIT workout. Walking for just 20-30 minutes every day decreases colonic transit time.
So the good news is that you don’t have to be a hardcore exercise fanatic for this to work; however, the bad news is that resistance training alone has not been shown to improve constipation symptoms. If you are a strict barbell gal or dumbbell dude, you might consider adding cardio exercises into your training regimens so that aerobic effects can be achieved.
Exercise for Alleviation of Constipation
A dysfunctional digestive system can lead to a decreased quality of life for many people. Whether colon issues or pelvic floor problems are at the root of constipation, aerobic exercise may help alleviate symptoms. By simply incorporating a little physical activity into every day, you can aid your digestive system in its task of breaking down food and relieving your body of waste. In this case, cardio appears superior to weightlifting for better digestive functioning. That doesn’t mean resistance training is bad, it just means supplemental aerobic exercises could not only ramp up your training, but also your stool. Regular aerobic exercise could lead to regular painless bowel movements. We hope now you can answer the question: “Does exercise improve digestion?”
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