A practical guide to using movement to keep your guts in motion
This year, rather than vowing to hit the gym in pursuit of that elusive six-pack, why not switch for something gentler that will give you a metaphorical six-pack, only on the inside?
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to not have to worry about digestive issues? From bloating to constipation (and potentially mortifying gas attacks), digestive upset is something that affects us all. But how can we take action to quell the worry? Sure, we make the effort to eat plenty of fibre. We read up on pre- and probiotics and know what foods to avoid in order to better advantage our digestive movements. But what if the answer lies in a different kind of movement? The simple act of moving our bodies, even in small ways, has been shown to aid with several gastrointestinal (GI) issues. Gentle exercise has been shown to ease constipation, improve intestinal bacteria, help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and may even protect against colon cancer. According to dietitian and gut health specialist Sophie Medlin, “Our bowels work more efficiently when we’re active. We know that immobile or bedbound people can often struggle with slow bowel transit and constipation, so any gentle exercise, like walking or swimming, can help to keep the digestion active.” The GI tract doesn’t contain muscles of its own, so the phrase “a strong digestive system” is a little misleading. To best support healthy function, we can engage in activities that increase blood flow and consume a fibre-rich diet, including whole grains and plenty of water. “Increasing blood flow to the bowel encourages peristalsis––the contractions in the bowel which push the stool along,” Medlin explains.
How about those bi-weekly high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes? Well, unfortunately they may be having the opposite effect on your digestion. “Vigorous exercise like running or HIIT, as well as weightlifting, will divert blood from your bowel into your muscles,” says Medlin.
No one is going to have the poster child of digestive systems all the time, so it’s worth knowing a few simple movements that could help. “Your stomach empties into the small intestine from the right,” says Medlin, “so if you’ve eaten too much or you’re feeling nauseous, try lying on your right side for some relief.”
For constipation, she suggests “a gentle walk and rubbing your tummy in a clockwise direction from your right hip, up to under your ribs, and down to your left hip can help to move poo along the colon.”
Our guts are very sensitive to stress and react to it in different ways. For some, it can mean a blockage and cramps; for others it can equal diarrhea and bloating, and can prevent function altogether. It’s also easy to get trapped in a stress/gut vortex, where stress-related GI issues cause more stress and anxiety in turn.
So, it’s well worth finding exercise that reduces your stress levels. Perhaps you find the gentle rhythm of swimming meditative or the sound of trees overhead on a forest walk soothing. Yoga has also been studied as a treatment for IBS. Certain yoga practices and breathing techniques can have an impact on digestion by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals your body’s rest and digest response.
The gut is relatively inactive overnight, so doing a few stretches or yoga poses when you wake up can help stimulate a movement.
Walk some or all of your commute to stimulate blood flow to the GI tract.
Move that jaw! Digestion starts in the mouth, so chewing thoroughly at every meal ensures full advantage of the digestive enzymes in your saliva.
Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to improve symptoms of digestive conditions when practised consistently. Try apps such as Calm and Headspace to make it a daily habit.
Colon contractions are generally in line with circadian rhythms, so the digestive system wakes up when you do. Sleeping on your left side (where the sigmoid colon is situated) may help minimize symptoms of heartburn and may help increase the chance of a bowel movement first thing in the morning.
We asked yoga teacher Annie Clarke to suggest some simple postures to support digestion.
As the name suggests, this pose is great for relieving wind or energizing a sluggish digestive system. Lying on your back, extend the right leg along the ground and draw the left knee into your chest. Hold for a few breaths, then swap to the other side.
Standing with your feet just wider than the hips, turn the toes out and bend the knees until your sitting bones are just above the ground. Bring elbows to the insides of thighs and press the palms together. This pose brings the digestive system into alignment and can help with healthy elimination.
Sitting back on the heels and folding over your thighs compresses the digestive organs. Focusing on deep breaths to massage the digestive system, this simple pose can help relieve digestive discomfort.
Check out Annie's youtube channel for some great yoga videos here!
A version of this article was published in the January 2020 issue of alive Canada with the title “Keep It Moving.”