If you thought you were a bit odd, or overly prepared, by bringing toilet paper with you when you exercise, don’t worry – you aren’t alone.
Many people experience exercise-induced bowel discomfort, and while they’d never open up about it to even their closest friends, “it’s a common problem and worthy of being brought out of the closet … or out of the bathroom,” says Nancy Clark, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.
Her clientele of fit folks experience gastrointestinal issues mid- or post-workout, she says, ranging from loose stools to constipation.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – for some people, physical activity can positively impact their body systems, and help relieve digestive pain. Here are five ways working up a sweat can influence your body’s, uh, regularity.
It’s a simple concept: the more you’re moving, the more your intestines will move.
“Movement will affect digestion because it will help move food contents, gas, and stool along the digestive tract,” says gastroenterologist Sophie Balzora, MD, assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health.
And as a result, you may get that unexpected, ‘I need to go now’ feeling. It’s for this reason doctors suggest exercise as a remedy for chronic constipation, Dr. Balzora adds.
Any form of preferred exercise will do, though running is a sure-fire trip to the restroom: “Runners are more likely to complain about intestinal problems than, say, cyclists, who stay more steady,” Clark says.
Go with the (blood) flow
During an exercise session, “your body will divert blood to the muscles that are doing most of the hard work,” says Dr. Balzora.
Since your digestive system is a lower priority, this can lead to diarrhea (or ‘runner’s trots’). This is most common amongst new runners; increasing running distances too quickly can take its toll on a digestive system. To avoid this, build on last session’s distance by about 10% per week, Clark suggests.
“Sometimes it’s about training the intestinal tract to get used to a longer distance,” she says.
You may get dehydrated
Don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids throughout a workout – dehydration can lead to a bout of constipation.
If this advice is too late, try taking in more water throughout the rest of the day. You’ll know you’ve reached optimal hydration when you need to pee every two to four hours, and your urine is a light yellow.
Snacks can screw your digestion
There’s nothing wrong with getting your daily fiber fix, but eating too much right before exercise can create gas, cramps, and that urge to poop, explains Dr. Balzora.
Besides that, it’s up to you to experiment with what works best for you and your bowels.
“Some people have cast-iron stomachs—they could have a can of baked beans and go for a run and everything is fine! Other people would say no to baked beans for two or three days before,” says Clark.
Be wary of sport gels or chews, if you rely on them to fuel you through a workout. Artificial additives and sugar substitutes can also lead to loose stools, says Dr. Balzora.
Regular exercise keeps you regular
If you’re the human equivalent of potato, you’re more likely to find yourself ‘backed up’, explains Dr. Balzora. A lack of physical exercise may be one of many constipation factors, but additional exercise is never a bad idea anyway.
“Becoming more active on a regular basis can help regulate the bowels,” she explains.
In fact, general healthy habits can all contribute to better bathroom habits.
“A healthy lifestyle makes for a healthy colon.”
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