Activity can help digestion

From bloating to constipation (and potentially mortifying gas attacks), digestive upset is something that affects us all. How can we take action to quell the worry?

The simple act of moving our bodies, even in small ways, has been shown to aid with several gastrointestinal (GI) issues. Gentle exercise has been shown to ease constipation, improve intestinal bacteria, help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and may even protect against colon cancer.

According to dietitian Sophie Medlin, “Our bowels work more efficiently when we’re active. We know that immobile or bedbound people can often struggle with slow bowel transit and constipation, so any gentle exercise, like walking or swimming, can help to keep the digestion active.”

The GI tract doesn’t contain muscles of its own, so the phrase “a strong digestive system” is a little misleading. To best support healthy function, we can engage in activities that increase blood flow and consume a fiber-rich diet, including whole grains and plenty of water.

But what about those bi-weekly high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes? Well, unfortunately they may be having the opposite effect on your digestion. “Vigorous exercise like running or HIIT, as well as weightlifting, will divert blood from your bowel into your muscles,” says Medlin.

Guts and stress are not friends

Our guts are very sensitive to stress and react to it in different ways. For some, it can mean a blockage and cramps; for others it can equal diarrhea and bloating, and can prevent function altogether. It’s also easy to get trapped in a stress/gut vortex, where stress-related GI issues cause more stress and anxiety in turn.

So, it’s well worth finding exercise that reduces your stress levels. Perhaps you find the gentle rhythm of swimming meditative or the sound of trees overhead on a forest walk soothing. Yoga has also been studied as a treatment for IBS. Certain yoga practices and breathing techniques can have an impact on digestion by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals your body’s rest and digest response.

Yoga poses for digestion

Yoga teacher Annie Clarke recommends these simple postures to support digestion.

Wind-removing pose

As the name suggests, this pose is great for relieving wind or energizing a sluggish digestive system. Lying on your back, extend the left leg along the ground and draw the right knee into your chest. Hold for a few breaths, then swap to the other side.

Yogi squat

Standing with your feet just wider than the hips, turn the toes out and bend the knees until your sitting bones are just above the ground. Bring elbows to the insides of thighs and press the palms together. This pose brings the digestive system into alignment and can help with healthy elimination.

Child’s pose

Sitting back on the heels and folding over your thighs compresses the digestive organs. Focusing on deep breaths to massage the digestive system, this simple pose can help relieve digestive discomfort.