Whether it’s backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, or freestyle — swimming may be the exercise to help tame the tummy troubles of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.
While all types of cardio seem to be beneficial to IBS, some exercises can actually trigger symptoms. Swimming appears to be especially IBS-friendly. “For patients with diarrhea, we don’t usually see the development of cramping and worsening diarrhea in people who swim,” said Aline Charabaty, MD, assistant professor of medicine and director of the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
In IBS, the bowels stop working the way they should, causing abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, and a change in bathroom habits like diarrhea, constipation, or both.
“It’s important to point out that vigorous exercise has been shown in controlled trials to improve the symptoms of patients with IBS,” said Richard Benya, MD, director of the gastrointestinal laboratory and professor of medicine at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. Vigorous means the activity increases oxygen uptake and is done for 20 to 60 minutes a day, 3 to 5 times a week. “The type of exercise is not as important for improving symptoms as it is being aerobic,” Dr. Benya added. “That said, running is well known to induce gastrointestinal symptoms in runners, including diarrhea. Hence, patients with IBS-diarrhea would likely not benefit from running — swimming is a good alternative.” Since swimming involves lower body exercise, it can help regulate bowel movements in people with IBS-constipation, too, said Dr. Charabaty.
The Physical Benefits of Swimming and IBS
Molly Hurford, a 26-year-old endurance athlete from New Jersey, was diagnosed with IBS several years ago. The magazine editor and freelance writer takes part in cycling races and triathlons. She runs, cycles, and swims. Hurford said that, stomach-wise, swimming is
the best sport for her. “I found that it was the most relaxing of the sports, since it is pretty low impact. You aren’t pounding the pavement like running and, because you don’t run much risk of dehydrating, it isn’t a sport where you really have to drink a lot unless it’s a really long workout,” Hurford said.
Hurford started swimming seriously in college, a time when she suffered with terrible IBS symptoms. “I found that it was really helpful because it gently stretched me out, so on a day when I was really cramped up or bloated, swimming helped a lot to make me feel better."
Logistically, swimming makes sense for people with IBS. Patients with diarrhea often have a lot of anxiety about whether a bathroom will be available when nature calls, said Charabaty. Stress and anxiety can worsen IBS symptoms. “Swimming laps in a pool or exercising in a gym allows you to be in close proximity to a restroom,” said Charabaty. Being close to a bathroom “was definitely a bonus on a bad stomach day,” said Hurford.
The Mental Benefits of Swimming and IBS
Hurford said that, for her, swimming is a really low-stress exercise that gives her time to think.
Whether you choose swimming or another sport, all vigorous exercise reduces stress. “In part this is due to endorphin release, the body’s own narcotic,” said Benya. Even so, he added that it’s important to talk to your health care provider before starting swimming or any other exercise program.
If you get the green light but aren’t a proficient swimmer, consider taking some swim lessons. Many communities offer adults-only lessons. Contact your local parks and recreation department to find out what resources are available in your area and get in the swim for IBS relief.