Don't Let Digestion Interfere with Your Workout


digestion problems during a workout

GI issues during workouts

It’s a new year! One of the most popular resolutions is to get into shape and exercise more. This is a fantastic resolution, but it’s important to be well informed about how to enter an exercise routine carefully and healthfully.

One of the most embarrassing and annoying moments in a workout is to have to stop to rush to the bathroom. These inconvenient trips are more common than believed! For certain kinds of exercise, these gastrointestinal (GI) issues can occur in as much as 50% of the population.

GI symptoms such as nausea, heartburn, and diarrhea are common complaints during exercise, especially high-intensity exercise. Symptoms can be impacted by several different factors, such as mode, duration, and intensity of exercise, hydration, fitness level, age, and dietary intake.  GI problems can be a major barrier to exercise for a lot of individuals, and can hinder motivation and long-term adherence to any exercise plan. Being aware of how exercise changes the body and how these changes impact symptoms will help you understand what you can do to decrease GI distress.

What’s going on in the GI Tract during exercise?

Under resting and normal conditions, the GI tract receives about 20-25% of the amount of blood being pumped by the heart per minute. Although exercise increases your heart rate, which increases the amount of blood being pumped by the heart, the amount of blood that is pumped to the GI tract actually decreases during exercise. The decrease in blood flow to the GI tract can be as much as a 60-70% decrease during moderate exercise. As intensity increases, blood flow to the GI tract goes down. The decrease in blood flow to your GI tract can cause some of the most common GI complaints, like nausea or cramping. So what can you to do help prevent or treat this?

Know how to hydrate!

Hydration is a focus of anyone who is exercising. But in order for fluid to be beneficial, it must first get into the bloodstream. Being hydrated helps the GI tract work best (and facilitates the process of hydration), but drinking in a dehydrated state can cause GI distress. This is because the GI tract is less efficient at getting the fluid into the bloodstream, but because individuals who are dehydrated are more likely to consume higher volumes of liquid at one time. The liquid isn’t immediately absorbed, increasing the amount of liquid just sitting in the stomach and GI tract, causing discomfort. In other words, make sure you’re hydrated before you exercise, and drink small amounts frequently while you exercise.

Understand how to move!

The direct mechanical effects of exercise on the abdominal organs have a significant impact on how the GI system functions. First, the jostling (such as up and down movement of the internal organs during running or high-impact exercise) is a major contributor to nausea, reflux and other GI symptoms. Switching to a less jostling exercise, as possible, can help. Second, as with any muscle, the diaphragm gets tired during exercise and receives less blood, leading to the common side cramp. This pain can be relieved by leaning forward and breathing out while pressing on the painful area with your fingers.

Keep it low-intensity

If you are new to exercising, or trying a new kind of exercise, and are experiencing frequent GI symptoms, train at a lower intensity for a longer period of time. Slowly adding higher intensity exercise into the program should decrease bouts of GI symptoms. Strenuous exercise may induce GI symptoms. Remember that physical activity performed at a lower intensity has been shown to have protective effects on the GI tract, can decrease risks of GI diseases, and can increase long-term health. Staying in lower intensity can be very beneficial and help increase your adherence to your exercise plan.

Track your nutrition and digestion!

Keep a food log to pinpoint possible food culprits to GI discomfort. Track amount and type of food eaten, symptoms right after intake, and issues during exercise. Avoid foods that have negative effects on you during exercise, especially before a big exercise event (a race or high-intensity workout day).

If you have specific GI diseases or conditions, you may require a different exercise prescription and should seek advice from a personal trainer and/or physician.

For more information:
1.  Gastrointestinal function during physical exercise; Michiel van Nieuwenhoven
2.  Potential benefits and hazards of physical activity and exercise on the gastrointestinal tract; Peters, vanBerge-Henegouven, de Vries, et al; Gut 2001

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