How Important Is Exercise for Digestion? Overview

Exercise affects every organ in your body, and the digestive tract is no exception. Digestion normally takes place during times of rest, when blood flow can be directed to the stomach and intestines. With exercise, blood is directed to working muscles. This means the digestive tract can get shortchanged during strenuous exercise, causing symptoms such as heartburn and nausea. But exercise has beneficial effects on the digestive tract, including reducing the risk of serious illnesses.


Vigorous exercise suppresses your sensation of hunger and can help with weight loss by increasing energy output and reducing appetite. Exercise, particularly running, can cause reflux and heartburn symptoms. Consult your doctor if you experience chest pain during exercise. If your doctor determines the pain is due to heartburn, acid blockers may help.



The gallbladder is part of your digestive system. Its job is to store bile made in the liver, then release it into the intestine when it is needed to help digest fatty foods. Exercising reduces your risk of forming gallstones, which block bile flow and cause painful inflammation of the gallbladder. The role of exercise is preventing gallstones is not entirely known, according to the “European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.”


A variety of studies have shown that regular exercise can reduce your risk of colon cancer by as much as 60 percent. Exercise can also reduce your risk of forming pouches within the colon called diverticulosis. These areas can bleed, or become infected, and require surgery.


The motility of the intestine is the speed at which it propels its contents through the digestive tract. Inactivity can cause constipation, particularly in the elderly. Exercise is helpful for this population, and possibly those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. A study published in the “European Journal of Clinical Investigation” showed exercise affected intestinal levels of nitric oxide, a regulator of motility.


  • “European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology”; Physical Activity and the Gastrointestinal Tract; Magnus Simren; 2002
  • “European Journal of Clinical Investigation”; Nitric Oxide Concentration in the Gas Phase of the Gastrointestinal Tract in Man; J. Kastner, et al.; May 1997
  • “Sports Medicine”; The Effect of Exercise on the Gastrointestinal Tract; Frank Moses; March 1990
  • “Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care”; The Impact of Physical Exercise on the Gastrointestinal Tract; Erick Prado de Oliveira, et al.; September 2009
Christine Jacobson

About this Author

Christine Jacobson began writing professionally in 2011. A long standing interest in health literacy ensures that medical topics are covered accurately in her work. After completing an Doctor of Medicine at Drexel University and residency in Philadelphia, she has practiced and taught medicine full time for 16 years.

Photo Credit: Hemera Technologies/ Images

Article reviewed by Jay Lawrence | Last updated on: 07/05/11

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