IBS and Exercise: My Story

Exercise has been shown to improve symptoms experienced by people with IBS for many years. Exercise has many advantages to the health and well-being of the body, and for intestinal health, it increases the muscle movement in the colon and increases transit time. 

This is my personal journey with exercise and how I feel it has helped my IBS over the last four years.

I have always been interested in exercise, at school I played for the hockey and netball team, and when I joined the RAF Cadets I swam and played hockey for the county.

When I went off to Southampton University to study Politics, like the majority of students, I stopped exercising and spent more time socialising (and learning of course!).  At the beginning of my third year of university I realised I had put on weight and felt unfit.  So I joined the University gym and have never looked back!

For as long as I can remember after that point, I have been working out 5 days a week (minimum) – working out at the gym is a real passion of mine (many people call it an obsession!).  I do fit it in whenever I can, generally this is a lunchtime, as I am not a morning person! But sometimes I do make it before work or if not after work.

I also enjoy bouldering which has so many positive effects on your life (I will discuss more on this later).

My journey with exercise has changed since I was diagnosed with IBS in 2014, not in terms of length or number of sessions but in terms of type of exercise.  Pre IBS, I was a member of Virgin Active and I would spend most of my time attending cardio classes or doing some form of cardio in the gym (generally cycling, as that is my favourite).

Once I started having issues with my gut and IBS, I found that I would often feel sick in my gym sessions, if I pushed my body too much or for too long.  It would mean I would have to end my session early and this made me feel sad as I could not workout to my full extent.

I started working with a PT (Personal Trainer), who I had known for a few years and who also had digestive issues.  He worked with me to create more strength based programmes, which seems to suit my body more and also found it more gentle on the stomach.  For me, strength based training is much more of challenge, I love being able to lift heavy and it allows me to channel any frustrations I have into this activity.

I started bouldering with Mr FFL a few years ago too – we are very lucky to have a bouldering centre a short drive from our house, Craggy Island.  We try to go once a week.  As bouldering is more about strength and the brain, my experience shows its kinder on the stomach.  I personally find cardio harder on my body and digestive system (especially if I am struggling with an IBS flare up) than doing weights/strength work.  Bouldering is all about solving puzzles to get your body up to the top of the route/wall.  Evidence has shown that using your brain to solve puzzles and exercising at the same time is great for mental health and wellbeing.  Bouldering does this for you every time! There are always new routes to try, or harder routes to push you out of your comfort zone.  We also feel very accomplished once we have completed a session, as you have achieved so much.  So if you are struggling with your mental health and IBS, there is nothing better than bouldering, it will help keep you focused on the task at hand and you may even find a new passion.

I do often get asked about times when I have an IBS flare up, how do I exercise.  Now this is not easy to answer as everyone is different.  If you have never exercised before I would recommend speaking to a Doctor first. But if you are already exercising, then I would recommend listening to your body.  The majority of my flare ups happen in the evening, so they do not impact my workouts as much as you would think.  If I am having a bad acid reflux issue or I am feeling sick, then I may just do some gentle cardio.  I would make sure my session was around 30 minutes long and not too full on.  When I have painful stomach cramps, there is no way I could exercise.  Lying down on my bed is the most I can handle.

If you are starting out exercising post an IBS diagnosis, I would suggest exercising 3 times a week for 30 mins, and then build up from there.  If you gym session is a regular in your routine, your body will get used to it and hopefully you will see the benefits in no time!

I completely feel the benefits of exercising for my IBS – it allows me to focus on something positive rather than letting IBS take over my life (and mind).  Both working out at the gym and bouldering allow me to have a challenge in my life, and feel accomplished. Regular excercise is proven to reduce stress, and there are so many links between stress and IBS.

As Ben Phillips said ‘food is the most over used anxiety drug and exercise is the most under used anti-depressant’!  What is the worst that can happen if you give it a try?

To note: I have previously done a blog post with the lovely people at The Food Diary Co around IBS and Exercise, so you can check this out here if you want to read more.

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