Five cardio exercises you can do without triggering IBS symptoms

What’s the best way to get started on IBS-friendly physical activity?


November 20, 2023

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November 20, 2023


If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you’ve no doubt heard that exercise is key. Activity can encourage your gut muscles to behave more predictably and help you digest better. It can also help soothe stress, including the kind that can make chronic gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome worse. Research shows that when IBS patients increase their physical activity levels, they typically reap rewards in the form of better health and IBS symptom management.  

But there are only so many downward dogs or deadlifts you can do, no? Adding in a little bit of cardio to your routine would be good for both your blood pressure and your bones. A fitter heart and lungs couldn’t hurt, either. Plus cardio gives your mood and your immune system a boost as well. Overall, it’s well worth considering, even if doing cardio with IBS may sound intimidating. But what’s the best way to get started on IBS-friendly physical activity?

First, the cardio you don’t want to do with IBS symptoms

Despite all the spectacular benefits of doing cardio, not every kind of aerobic activity is a great fit for IBS. Some forms of exercise are just too abrupt, with too many jumping or lurching motions that could upset your gastrointestinal system and potentially make your abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and other symptoms worse.

Basically, if the exercise you’re considering could be classified as high impact or involves leaping or quick weight changes, it might be best to replace that particular exercise with a different, more IBS-friendly one.

Specifically, here are a few activities you might want to steer clear of:

  • CrossFit, since the intense sets and emphasis on power moves could put pressure on your gut, bring on nausea or bloating, and worsen symptoms of IBS
  • Long distance running, because the repetitive pounding of your feet against the pavement can rattle your digestive system and lead to disruptive bowel movements and cramps (some runners with IBS compensate by sticking to running routes that are relatively close to public bathrooms and by running at a slower, more gut-friendly pace). Runners who regularly experience constipation as one of their IBS symptoms say that running can sometimes ease the constipation though, which is good to keep in mind. Although running might be challenging, in other ways, if it’s one of your favorite ways of fitting in cardio, there may still be ways you can keep doing it.
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT), as the surges of intense movement alternating with brief rests could bring on cramps or increased discomfort
  • Fast martial arts, because being thrown to the mat or pushing yourself too hard risks taking a blow to the abdomen and worsening your IBS symptoms
  • Soccer, basketball, baseball, and more, since although these ball sports can be exciting and fun, they can also involve a lot of abrupt movements and impacts, which doesn’t tend to help IBS

To recap, aerobic intensity does not always pair well with IBS. The good news is that you still have a lot of lower-impact cardio exercises left to try out.

The best exercises for IBS-friendly cardio

Aerobic exercises can still be IBS-friendly. You may want to try one of these:

Low impact “non jumping” jacks and other popular gym moves

If you like the intensity of HIIT and CrossFit, you can modify many of their core, high-intensity exercises to make them more IBS-suitable. Rather than jumping jacks, for example, skip the jump but still do the rest of the move. Do lunges, but in a slow, controlled fashion.

Slow your sets, use intentional movements, and keep your stomach as calm as possible (keeps your gut motility down, in other words). You’ll still benefit from gaining strength and endurance, but without as many gastrointestinal disruptions and IBS flare-ups. If you’d like support with converting exercises into gut-friendly sets, you can find helpful videos online or hire a personal trainer.

Cycling or the elliptical

You can get a great cardio workout on the right exercise machines while still being kind to your IBS. Pick the machines that offer low-impact routines and let you adjust the difficulty settings. You can enjoy a steady ride on the stationary bike (and you have our permission to skip high-power Spin classes!) Running or jogging on the elliptical machine can be much smoother than regular running, while regular rowing machine sessions can deliver excellent cardio workouts that can have multiple positive effects on IBS management as well as your overall health.

Aqua jogging (or swimming)

Use the water like an ally — it adds buoyancy and supports your whole body as you move. Plus, water workouts aren’t likely to lead to cramps or diarrhea, unlike many other kinds of exercise. They still raise your heart rate and help with weight control, however. Some IBS patients choose swimming (back stroke might be a solid choice), but water aerobics or even aqua jogging give your workout a twist without tying your gut into knots.


Pilates builds long, lean muscle and lung endurance with sets of challenging holds and moves. Since you're often using your own body weight, you can adjust the moves to the ideal difficulty level. You can increase the cardio dimension by increasing the difficulty or by inserting mini-sets of low-impact cardio movements. If Pilates isn’t for you, perhaps certain yoga poses, exercises specifically designed for IBS, or even regular sets of deep breathing might be a better fit? They can all contribute to better digestive health and general wellness.

Power hiking

Walking is one thing (and a good thing, too). Power hiking kicks your health benefits up a notch. While still offering an excellent and challenging cardio workout, hiking isn’t typically as tough on your IBS. Plus, being in nature can give you a sense of calm and stability, a natural mood boost, if you will. If you notice any IBS symptoms, you can always slow your pace or pick a less steep elevation.

Tips for exercise and IBS management success

Just because a particular exercise is IBS-friendly doesn’t necessarily make it easy. For cardio success:

  • Make regular exercise a habit, something you aim for at least five times a week, since it’s excellent for both your physical and mental health
  • Build in warm-ups, cool-downs, bouts of moderate intensity movement (if possible) and consistent rewards
  • Exercise with a friend if possible, since having accountability also increases the chances you’ll follow through on exercise
  • On the days your motivation flags, try to exercise for just five minutes and then see if you want to keep going (this is a way to gently trick yourself in a way that actually works)

Being kind to yourself but consistent about taking care of your fitness helps with both your IBS and your overall quality of life.

How Salvo Health can help with IBS symptoms

At Salvo Health, we know IBS can put a crimp in your exercise regimen. Our digital healthcare platform and virtual clinic provides you with continuous text-based support and care for your chronic condition. Imagine being able to text a gastroenterology specialist or health coach to avoid flare-ups or manage your pain. Alongside text-based communication, members receive a customized care plan that can take account of how their symptoms can be managed even when working out.

Get immediate access to a coordinated Salvo Health care team, including a certified gastro specialist and board-certified health coach when you join Salvo Health today.

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