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Exercise Cuts Irritable Bowel, Other Gut Woes

Active Obese People Have Less Gut Pain, Fewer IBS Symptoms
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 3, 2005 -- Obese people have fewer symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and less gut pain if they exercise, researchers report.

It shows that a healthy lifestyle is an important part of overcoming abdominal pain, diarrhea, and other intestinal woes, says Rona L. Levy, PhD, of the University of Washington in Seattle.

"A lot of times people's irritable bowel syndrome [IBS] has taken over their lives," Levy tells WebMD. "One of the things one wants to do is have people live more fulfilling lives rather than have illness be the focus."

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a group of symptoms consisting most commonly of abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. It occurs in about one in five Americans -- more commonly in women -- and tends to flare with emotional stress. Though the intestines are not functioning normally in IBS there is no anatomical problem that can be seen or measured as a sign of the disease.

Exercise/Healthy Diet vs. IBS/Gut Pain

Levy took advantage of a large weight loss study led by University of Minnesota researcher Robert W. Jeffrey, PhD. Jeffrey and colleagues enrolled nearly 1,000 obese and overweight men and women in a weight loss study.

Levy asked the study participants about their gut symptoms. Then she and her colleagues analyzed whether diet and exercise were linked to the severity and frequency of these problems.

They found that people who were heaviest at the end of the study reported the most abdominal pain and diarrhea. They also found that a healthy diet -- low fat and high fruit and fiber intake -- and exercise were linked to fewer gastrointestinal symptoms.

But that was only part of the answer. After a more sophisticated analysis, one factor emerged as the most important predictor of gut symptoms: exercise.

"These data give another reason why exercise is a good thing to do, and that it may reduce the experience of gastrointestinal symptoms," Levy says.

Levy and colleagues report their findings in the current issue of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

What You Do Affects How You Feel

There's no doubt physical activity is good for the gut, says John Affronti, MD, associate professor of medicine at Emory University and director of endoscopy at Emory University Hospital.

"Activity in general will increase the activity of the gastrointestinal tract," Affronti tells WebMD. "After abdominal surgery, for example, active people regain function more quickly than sedentary people."

But does exercise really make irritable bowels less irritable -- or does it just make people feel better? It's hard to tell from the Levy study, Affronti says.

"For people with abdominal pain, one thing is the pain and the other is the perception of how severe it is," he tells WebMD. "That psychological component is driven by a lot of things. I wonder if people who do all these things to get a better lifestyle might want to see good things come of it."

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