Why Does Exercise Help with Digestion?

Today I had a patient with gastritis (irritated stomach lining) and acid reflux (heartburn) who came to me on an antacid medication that was no longer working for her. My first question for her was: what do you do for stress relief? Like many other people who are extremely busy with work, families, and extracurricular activities, she reported that she doesn’t take enough time doing things she finds fulfilling and relaxing. It is a common phenomenon- we prioritize other things in our lives and push forward, working to achieve our goals.

There is nothing wrong with this- in fact I would argue that working hard to achieve goals is also extremely fulfilling for many of us- but often we take this a little too far and lose sight of the things that give us the strength and health to continue to achieve in the first place. The stereotypical image we have of the overweight corporate executive swallowing Tums throughout his day makes a lot of sense in this scenario. High stress means that your body never gets into a state of relaxation- the state we refer to as “parasympathetic.” If you never get into this state, you will not make optimal amounts of digestive enzymes and acid to help break down and absorb your food. The end result of this is inflammation in your digestive system and a whole host of symptoms from heartburn to constipation.

High stress and low digestive function actually means you make less stomach acid, but you are constantly refluxing acid up into your esophagus and throat. Decreasing acid production by taking medications is one way to manage this, but many of these medicines can have serious side effects. A more productive method of approaching this is to focus on helping your body get into a relaxed state when you are preparing to eat. Relaxation is imperative for optimal digestion.

So should you exercise while you eat? Of course not. But exercise is hugely iportant for helping your body enter a state of deep relaxation later in the day. Deep breathing during exercise is also excellent training for putting your body into a relaxed state- in fact deep breathing prior to meals supports good stomach acid production. If you have an active job, but it is stressful, it may help your physical fitness but not your overall health if you do not feel relaxed as a result. Making time to exercise- whether you are a walker, a white-water rafter or a cross-fitter- is incredibly calming for the nervous system.

Studies have repeatedly shown that regular exercise helps with constipation and insomnia. Again, this is because when you exercise you are not only physically moving your body and supporting the bowels moving in the right direction, but you are helping train your body to relax. If you are struggling with digestive issues, consider exercise at least three times weekly- whether vigorous or gentle- so that you can practice experiencing that relaxed state that is so essential to a healthy digestive system.

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