Does Exercise Help Bowel Movements?
Jun 14, 2011 | By Carol Sarao
Constipation, usually defined as having less than three bowel movements a week, coupled with stool that is hardened, dry, or difficult or painful to pass, can be uncomfortable. Fortunately, some simple lifestyle changes, including regular aerobic exercise, can usually alleviate this common condition. If constipation persists for longer than three weeks or if you experience severe abdominal or rectal pain, blood in your stools, thin, pencil-like stools or unexplained weight loss, see your doctor.
Constipation occurs when stool remains too long in the large intestine, which is responsible for removing water from stool and changing it to a solid state. The longer stool stays in the large intestine, the drier it becomes, and the more difficult it is to pass. A change in normal dietary or exercise habits can cause constipation. Stress, a low-fiber diet, being pregnant and not drinking enough fluids can also play a role. Certain medications, including calcium or iron supplements, narcotic analgesics, antacids, diuretics and antidepressants, are common culprits as well. Medical conditions that cause constipation include nerve or muscle dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes and hypothyroidism.
Constipation is diagnosed by physical examination. Your doctor may also do a sigmoidoscopy using a thin, flexible tube to view the lower third of the large intestine, or a colonoscopy, in which a camera displays images of the entire large intestine on a TV screen.
Regular aerobic exercise, such as cycling, swimming, walking, dancing and running, promotes efficient function of the large intestine and can help ease constipation. According to The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, you should try to perform at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day. Try brisk walking with long strides and shoulders back for 35 to 45 minutes a day.
There is scientific research supporting the beneficial effects of exercise on constipation. In a review published in the July 2010 online version of "Clinical Evidence," the authors cited a study in which patients with constipation who participated in a 12-week exercise program saw symptoms such as straining at defecation and hard stools decrease significantly. Consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program.
In addition to regular aerobic exercise, you can perform specific exercises such as the abdominal lift to strengthen your abdominal muscles and promote healthy elimination. Begin by standing with your feet apart at shoulder-width and your hands on the insides of your thighs just above your knee; this will cause you to bend over slightly. Breathe out forcefully through your mouth and immediately suck your abdomen in and up, towards your spine. Hold this position -- without breathing in -- for five to 10 seconds, then relax your abdomen and breathe in slowly.
Repeat the sequence two more times; eventually, you can build up to five or six times. Finish the exercise by standing fully upright and raising your arms straight over your head as you breathe in. Stretch, hold the breath for a few seconds, then exhale and bring your arms down.
Other lifestyle changes you can make to combat constipation include eating more vegetables, grains and fruits. The fiber in these foods helps to form soft, bulky stools that are easier to pass. Your doctor may also advise taking fiber supplements. Drinking plenty of liquids can help you avoid the dehydration that can cause constipation.