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Boost your digestive health through exercise

A man in workout clothes doing jump rope

Article updated on January 22, 2024 

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

While good nutrition is a key predictor of good digestive health, exercise and being active also play a significant role in how well our digestive system functions.

How exercise affects digestive function

Physical activity can also have short-term benefits for digestion. Exercising increases blood flow towards the muscles and digestive tract, which can help move food through it. It may also enhance the microbiota found in the gut, which plays an important role in protecting our immune system and in turn helping reduce the risk of colon cancer.1

Exercise can also help alleviate heartburn, gas, stomach cramps and constipation. Conversely, as you become less active, your intestinal flow tends to slow down.

When and what to eat before exercising

For the most part, exercise is beneficial to digestive health; however, improperly-timed exercise can have negative effects on digestion.

For example, if you’ve just eaten a meal before a workout, you may 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. If you start exercising without giving your body enough time to digest a meal, blood flow can get redirected from your stomach to your heart and other muscles in order to perform the exercise, which can strain your digestive system.2

Give yourself 1-2 hours to digest a meal 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 help improve gut health because they increase blood flow to the organs, including the gastrointestinal tract. This can help create stronger intestinal contractions and more digestive enzymes.3

If you’re unable to perform aerobic exercises, the good news is that there are other less-demanding ways to help improve your gut health. Certain types of abdominal stretches and yoga poses can help increase blood flow to the digestive system and can strengthen muscles to help promote digestion.4

Low-impact activities like walking are excellent for supporting digestive health (and, yes, those walks after a large meal do help improve your digestion).

Are you looking for more exercise guidance? Our team of kinesiologists is here to support you on your fitness journey. Contact us for personalized support.

1 Martin, D. 2011. “Physical activity benefits and risks on the gastrointestinal system.” Southern medical journal. 

2 Mailing LJ, Allen JM, Buford TW, Fields CJ, Woods JA. 2019. “Exercise and the Gut Microbiome: A Review of the Evidence, Potential Mechanisms, and Implications for Human Health.” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews.

3 Martin, D. 2011. “Physical activity benefits and risks on the gastrointestinal system.” Southern medical journal. 

4 2021. “Physical Activity and GI Health”. Gastrointestinal Society.