The Gut and Exercise

By Karen Willey

To me, movement is so much more than a physical activity. It is the means by which we can enhance the harmony and congruity of body, mind and spirit.

The human body is designed to move.  We move to engage with others, seek out our basic needs and to get the things we desire.  We also move away from things that scare, stress or repel us.  Our bodies are constantly moving either from our voluntarily actions or unconsciously. Our heart beats continuously, our blood circulates, we breathe, the food we eat moves through the gut all without us having to do a thing about it.  Our bowel actions are even euphemistically called `movements’. There is constant movement happening at the very foundation of our cellular and molecular structure. We move to live and we live to move and we cannot live without movement.

It is a sad fact that in modern society we are moving less and less. We all know that movement is good for us, with beneficial effects on our physical and mental well-being.  So when did moving our bodies become `exercise’? When did we start having to diarise it, wear special clothes to do it, and follow the prescriptive formula of a so-called `expert’ to get rock hard abs? Western culture has broken down movement to its isolated parts, but no other animal species does biceps curls, abdominal crunches or walks on a treadmill, except for maybe the dog on the Jetsons!  It is rare that we move just for the pure joy of it.  

Nowadays, there are so many `experts’, and so much confusing information abounds about the `right’ sort of exercise to do. I certainly don’t claim to be any sort of expert, nor do I think there is only one `right’ way to approach exercise.  What I do believe, first and foremost, is that it is so important to tune in to what your body is telling you and work out what works for you.  Basically, listen to your gut!

Recently, the gut has received much focus as the body’s second brain.  Gut feelings can be a message from the brain as much as from the digestive tract itself. If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), then this message is delivered as a chronic experience of abdominal pain and digestive distress that reflects the intimate link between the mind and the body.  IBS is believed to be caused by a disruption of normal brain–gut interaction where the nerves of the gut become oversensitive to food, stress, and other demands on your body and mind. People with IBS also tend to suffer from high levels of anxiety.1 It is not entirely clear how stress, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome are related, or which one comes first, but studies show they tend to co-exist. 

If you suffer from IBS, the exercise you choose will impact your gut health and general well-being. Studies have found that digestive disorders are common in athletes, particularly runners and triathletes, with women more likely to suffer symptoms. Nearly half have loose stools and nausea and vomiting occur frequently after hard runs. Diarrhoea, incontinence and rectal bleeding occur with surprising frequency. Endurance exercise is characterised by a shift in blood flow away from the gastrointestinal tract towards the active muscle and the lungs. Changes in nervous activity, in circulating hormones, peptides and metabolic end products lead to changes in gut motility, blood flow, absorption and secretion.  High intensity endurance activities may therefore not be the best choice of exercise for those with IBS.

When you have IBS, the contractions of your intestines may be slowed to the point of constipation or spasming to the point of diarrhea. Working or releasing the abdominal muscles in a rhythmic fashion can restore normal motility of the gut, reducing gut symptoms and improving the bioavailability of ingested nutrients. Gentle Pilates movements and some yoga poses, like seated spinal rotational movements or spinal extension from a prone position, will put gentle pressure on the abdominal organs. Other movements, like lateral bends and spinal twisting in a supine position can release tension around the abdomen. A well-sequenced exercise program will send gentle pulses of compression and stretch to sensory receptors along the digestive tract. This combination of pressure and release is believed to help balance the contractions of the gut, whether you are trying to increase gut motility or slow it down.

This movement, combined with a diet rich in pro-biotics, can help heal gut lining.

 “Including probiotics in the diet is one of the best ways to boost immune health and digestion, as well as supporting vitamin B12 and K production and supporting mental health,” says nutritionist Lisa Guy.

Lewis & Son’s range of clean, wild-fermented foods, krauts, and healthy meats, when combined with mindful movement, can produce results that one would not achieve from just diet or exercise exclusively.  (Use code: FIT25 to get 25% off all Lewis & Son Ferments on our web store

As stress is a major trigger for IBS, exercise methods with a primary focus on breath, such as Pilates and Yoga can be very beneficial as well. Studies have found that Pilates training can improve the action of respiratory and abdominal muscles during breathing, and thus benefit respiratory mechanics. Steady, smooth breathing throughout your exercise session will have calming effects on both your body and mind.  The breathing should not become strained, as this will only reinforce stress levels and symptoms.

Movement is so much more than a sum of its parts and our beliefs and expectations of how and why we are doing exercise can actually limit its benefits. I believe that the body has an inherent wisdom all of its own, but we rarely listen to it.  We override what it tells us with our expectations (realistic or otherwise) of what it should be able to do or how it should perform.

I believe that it is so important to tune into the messages your body is giving you on any given day.  Your capabilities will be different from one day to the next, so be careful not to push or strain beyond this, moving your body mindfully and respectfully.

It is so important to listen to your body, and choose an exercise modality suited to your unique make-up, one that promotes functional free-flowing, stress-free movement and makes you feel good!  No matter what sort of exercise you choose, I recommend finding a skilful and intuitive exercise teacher who will work with you to maximise your movement potential, minimise any possible adverse effects and help you to feel and move the best you can.   

To me, movement is so much more than a physical activity. It is the means by which we can enhance the harmony and congruity of body, mind and spirit. Today I encourage you to start thinking about how you move. Arrive home into this amazing vehicle that is your body and become more present to its inherent wisdom.



About Karen Willey
Masters of Applied Science, Ex & Sp Sc
Diploma of Professional Pilates Instruction (Polestar)

Karen has a wealth of experience working as both a health professional and in the fitness industry. She was a Diabetes Nurse Consultant for 10 years at the Diabetes Centre at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, where she was responsible for clinical care, patient and health professional training, and research. She completed a Masters Degree (by Research) in Exercise and Sport Science. Her research focused on the effects of progressive resistance training in elderly, obese, diabetic subjects. Her research work has been published in international peer reviewed journals and she has co-authored a book on diabetes care for patients and health professionals.

Over the last 18 years, Karen's focus has been practising and teaching the Pilates Method, owning and operating Mindful Movement Pilates Studio on Sydney’s north shore until late 2017. She completed her Diploma of Professional Pilates instruction with Polestar Pilates and has been a Polestar Mentor assisting new instructors in their training for the last 9 years.

Through Pilates and other exercise modalities, Karen has helped many people to optimise their own movement quality, physical capacity and self belief. Karen's passion is to help people, especially those with medical problems or injury, improve their health outcomes and well-being with exercise tailored specifically to their needs.