Interrupting a workout to rush to the bathroom can be one of the most embarrassing and annoying moments for anyone during exercise. Unfortunately, gastrointestinal issues (GI) can be a major barrier for client success, and can hinder motivation and long-term adherence to any exercise plan.
Common GI Symptoms
GI symptoms that are common complaints during exercise (and especially during high-intensity exercise) include:
- stomach cramps
As much as 50% of the general population reports GI issues during prolonged exercise. Symptoms are affected by factors such as the mode, duration, or intensity of exercise, the age of the client, and especially dietary intake. Personal trainers and fitness experts need to be aware of GI disorders and how exercise can have an impact on symptoms. Trainers can also help mitigate GI symptoms by carefully designing each client's exercise program.
What Causes GI Issues?
Researchers continue to examine and study the effect and influence that exercise has on the GI tract to try to better understand the biological causes. Understanding the physiological changes in the body during exercise can help identify ways to manage symptoms. GI symptoms during exercise typically are a result of maldigestion, malabsorption, and improper food and fluid intake.
Managing GI Symptoms During Exercise
These biomechanical changes occur naturally with exercise but there are ways to decrease risk of developing symptoms if clients are otherwise healthy. It should be noted that trainers should question clients about any GI diseases or conditions they may have, as these clients might need a modified exercise prescription. Here are some tactics to help your clients manage exercise-related GI symptoms:
- Several studies have demonstrated that blood flow to the GI tract is inversely related to the intensity of exercise. These studies have also demonstrated that since VO2max improves with training, GI symptoms will also decrease with training. If your client is new to exercising and they are experiencing frequent GI symptoms, have them train at a lower VO2max for a longer period of time. Slowly adding higher intensity exercise into the program should decrease bouts of GI symptoms.
- Strenuous exercise may induce GI symptoms, which may deter your clients from working out. Remember that physical activity performed at a lower intensity has been shown to have protective effects on the GI tract, can decrease risks of GI diseases, and can increase long-term health. Keeping your client in lower intensity can be very beneficial and increase adherence to the exercise program.
- Coach your clients to stay hydrated. If the exercise program is less than an hour, individuals should drink water throughout the exercise session. For longer durations, individuals can add sports drinks - but since these can be a source of GI issues, it's important for individuals to slowly add these into their routines and to track which drinks increase discomfort.
- Encourage your clients to keep a food log to pinpoint food culprits for any GI issues. Food logs can be very helpful by tracking the amount eaten, symptoms right after intake, and any issues during exercise. Since everyone's digestive system empties at a different rate, it's also important to look at how quickly food moves through the intestines, which can vary between one to three days. A simple way to learn your personal rate of digestion is to eat sesame seeds, corn or beets; or in other words, foods that can be seen in feces. Once you know this piece of information, you can use it to create a better diet before exercise, avoiding foods that take longer to digest. This can be particularly helpful before a big exercise event, such as a race or high-intensity workout day.
Share tips that you have found work for avoiding GI issues during training in the comments below.
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Julieann Hansen is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Yoga Instructor, Certified ACE Group Fitness Instructor, Certified Spin Instructor, Certified Workplace Wellness Specialist and has her Masters in Public Health. She has been in the fitness and wellness industry for nearly 10 years.
She currently serves on the Exam Development Team for ACSM's Committee on Certification and Registry Boards (CCRB). Julieann writes for a few online magazines and blogs, including Livestrong.com and Patriots Fitness Magazine. Julieann currently works as the Wellness Specialist for Rocky Mountain Health Plans and loves helping employer groups implement their wellness programs. When Julieann isn't working, she loves music, the outdoors, and running.