Should digestive health influence your exercise program?

should digestive health influence exercise program

Most of our clients think about movement only in terms of weight loss, fitness, strength, competitive sports or maybe body sculpting. There is a lot more to movement than this. And for clients suffering from digestive troubles, the type of movement program can directly affect your symptoms and likewise the digestive issues can impact the success of the movement program. Here’s how.

How pain works

Pain and discomfort are signals from the tissues to the brain and back again. These signals are created below our level of conscious thinking: we cannot create a pain signal ourselves, unless we physically hurt ourselves on purpose.

Although pain cannot be created or controlled, the way your brain interprets pain, can. For instance, if you hurt your toe, while you are in a highly anxious mental state, the pain you experience may be much higher than if you hurt your toe in the same way, while in a calm mental state.

So, although we want to control the cause for your pain when dealing with digestive issues, we also want to help moderate the experience of pain. Where, then, does movement come into this picture?

The effects of gut-pain on your movement

Pain is a gift: it protects us from harm, and tells us when something is wrong. When we are in chronic pain, though, this gift quickly turns into a curse. We often move in different ways to moderate or minimize pain. This is a natural, protective measure, to help us prevent injury. Think of the last time you had a stomach cramp after a meal. Chances are that you sat hunched over or went lying in a fetal position to relieve the pain. If you start getting cramps while you exercise, you’ll probably put pressure on your gut, and stop exercising altogether. These are ways you try to moderate the signal of pain to your brain.

We have all been taught that we need to “sit up straight, spine tall, feet flat”. All of that becomes unbearable when our tummy is disrupted. And the longer you suffer from any of these conditions, the more often you’ll find yourself hunched over, bent double or lying down.

We don’t think that these behaviours affect us, but anything that we do repetitively, starts changing the body’s dynamics. Over time, even your posture changes: whilst the protective fetal position helps keep our pain-levels down, our frontal hip muscles also begin to shorten, our thighs work harder, and our brain learns that this is our new ‘resting’ position.

Consequently, we could experience back ache, knee problems or pain in the hips themselves – all because of an imbalance in our gut!

Adapt your movement program

Everything in your body is connected, and in surprising ways. The body continually adapts and compensates – and this compensation can lead to chronic conditions and pain. To prevent this, we need to adapt our movement programs accordingly.

  1. Start by taking charge of the nervous system, using the power of the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve helps us with digestion. Gargling a bit of water before your meal, and spitting it out, can help to kick-start the digestion process before the meal. Do it after your meal too!
  2. Being aware of posture change can be difficult, as it’s not always in the front of our minds. Practicing mindfulness, or simply setting a reminder on your phone to check your posture, can be simple, powerful practices to restore balance.
  3. Slow down. Often, when clients have gut-related pain, they stop their training program altogether. Don’t! You can still go to the gym, but slow down the movements, focusing on stretches, and slow breathing exercises. By engaging the rest of your movement system, such as your abdominal muscles and diaphragm, you help your digestive tract do its job. The body also releases hormones during exercise that decrease pain and improve discomfort.

Your body is a complex, interrelated ecosystem. Your gut and movement-systems are more closely connected than you may think.

Special thanks to specialist personal trainer and therapist Shaun Brooking for this guest post.

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