Boost your digestive health through exercise

We know that regular exercise is good for our overall health, but did you know that includes digestive health as well?

While nutrition has much to do with it, exercise and, more generally, being active, also plays a huge role in how well our digestive systems function.

How exercise affects digestive function

Over time, regular exercise helps strengthen the digestive tract and keep the gut healthy. Evidence suggests that regular exercise has other benefits for the digestive system including enhancing the microbiota found in the gut and reducing the risk of colon cancer. Conversely, as you become less active, your intestinal flow tends to slow down.

Physical activity can also have short-term benefits for our digestion. Exercising increases blood flow towards the muscles and digestive tract, which can help move food through the digestive tract. Exercise has also been shown to alleviate heartburn, gas, stomach cramps and constipation.

When and what to eat before exercising

For the most part, exercise is beneficial to digestive health, however too much exercise or improperly timed exercise with eating can have negative effects on digestion.

For example, if you’ve just eaten a meal before a workout, you can experience gastrointestinal problems such as upset stomach, abdominal pain, heartburn, bloating and constipation. This is especially true if you’ve eaten a meal high in fats and proteins. When you eat, the blood flow around your stomach and intestines increases to help your body digest the food. Therefore, if you start exercising without giving your body enough time to digest the food, most of the blood will be pulled back from your stomach to your heart and other muscles.

Give yourself at least 1-2 hours to digest before intense exercise and 2-3 hours if you’ve eaten a meal high in fats and proteins. If you need to eat closer to a workout, try to eat easily digestible foods like those high in carbohydrates and low in fats. Bananas, toast and oats are all good options. Also, be sure to keep yourself hydrated while exercising, as dehydration is a leading cause of gastrointestinal issues.

Exercises that pump up digestion

Aerobic exercises, such as running, cycling and swimming, are excellent ways to improve gut health because they increase blood flow to the organs, including the gastrointestinal tract. This results in stronger intestinal contractions and more digestive enzymes.

If you’re unable to perform aerobic exercises, the good news is that there are other less-demanding ways to improve your gut health, as even less strenuous exercises help with digestive health.

Certain types of abdominal stretches and yoga poses can help increase blood flow to the digestive system and can strengthen muscles, which has been proven to help promote digestion. Activities such as walking can support digestive health (and, yes, those walks after a large meal do help improve your digestion).

If you’ve experienced digestive health issues and would like to learn more about building an exercise plan that can help, please reach out to your Copeman kinesiologist.