"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."
If that's so, it doesn't matter, says Levy, a licensed psychologist and social worker who sees many patients with gastrointestinal symptoms and irritable bowel syndrome. If patients report fewer symptoms, it means patients feel better. And feeling better is a key to getting better.
"Sometimes people label their symptoms in ways that are maladaptive," Levy says. "So if they have some symptom such as pain or gas they may catastrophize and think, 'Oh, I may have cancer,' or, 'There is something wrong with me.' That can make people restrict their lives more and more. It can become a downward spiral."
Part of getting patients over this, she says, is encouraging patients to eat appropriately and exercise daily. Other treatments for IBS include watching your diet by avoiding gas-producing foods and adding fiber to your diet for control of diarrhea or constipation. Stress relaxation techniques may also help you control stressful situations that may trigger the condition.
Levy is now studying treatments for children and teens who suffer recurring abdominal pain. Seattle-area parents interested in the NIH-funded study -- in which children receive free treatment -- may call (206) 616-2358.