Can exercise improve your IBS?

Although typical irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) management strategies do not specifically prescribe an exercise regime, most healthcare practitioners recommend a regular program of physical activity to maintain good health. Recently, a group of researchers from the United Kingdom1 conducted a short-term randomized control trial designed to test whether increased exercise led to an improvement in IBS symptoms and self-reported quality of life scores (related to their IBS) in a small group of sedentary IBS patients. A literature search shows no similar previously published studies.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a common functional digestive disorder affecting 10-30% of various populations worldwide, with symptoms of abdominal pan, bloating, constipation, and/or diarrhea. This condition has a significant negative impact on quality of life for patients.

Using patient information from a district general hospital in England, the researchers selected 56 IBS patients to take part in the study. After randomization into two groups, one group agreed to maintain their normal treatment regime and to refrain from changing the amount of physical activity in their lives while the second group received an intervention involving two separate one-on-one exercise consultations.

The first consultation focused on developing a customized exercise plan, increasing motivation, and discussing the benefits of increased exercise. Researchers provided participants with a pedometer as a motivating tool and as a tangible way to measure activity. After 4 weeks, a further counselling session included tips for maintaining the new active lifestyle, and avoiding a relapse into their former sedentary habits. Researchers selected this type of intervention because it was relatively low-cost and, if study results were positive, then these methods could integrate easily into existing healthcare services.

At the beginning and end of this 12-week study, each participant filled out a series of specific questionnaires, established by the research community, to assess his or her symptom severity, stress levels, quality of life, and the amount of exercise. Results indicated that the exercise groups had substantially improved constipation symptoms after 12 weeks, as well as having participated in a much greater amount of exercise. What surprised the researchers was that quality of life scores did not improve significantly between the two groups.

Several possibilities exist to explain these results: limited earlier research supports the inclusion of exercise as a management strategy for constipation in elderly individuals, as well as reducing transit time through the entire digestive tract. The lack of improvement in quality of life scores may be due to the short duration of the trial, and the study designers postulate that a longer period of time may be necessary to show measurable improvements.

So will exercise decrease your IBS symptoms? If you have constipation, then maybe, but as this study points out, more research must occur to reach a clinical consensus. Significantly, this study demonstrates that a very small exercise promotion strategy can produce significant improvement in physical activity levels and suggests this may be a valuable approach. Moreover, this study did not find any damaging effects for participants, and there are plenty of other well-known health benefits when getting regular exercise, including improved cardiovascular fitness, weight control, and a reduced risk of some other chronic conditions.

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 171 – 2009
Daley AJ et al. The effects of exercise upon symptoms and quality of life in patients diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome: A randomised controlled study. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 2008; 29:778-782.
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