When you feel like the contents of your stomach can make an appearance at any moment, the last thing you want to do is exercise. But just because you have acid reflux doesn’t mean you have to skip the gym and stay at home.
So, does working out actually make acid reflux worse? This all depends on the kind of exercise you do and the precautions you take before working out. Low-impact exercises such as yoga and swimming won’t make your acid reflux worse. Adopting better feeding habits before going to the gym can also save you the trouble of burping bile throughout the day.
Acid reflux and working out don’t always have to go hand in hand. There are plenty of things you can do to improve your symptoms while staying in shape.
Understanding Acid Reflux
Acid reflux refers to the “backflow” movement of gastrointestinal contents from the stomach up to the esophagus. A small muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) serves as a barrier between the stomach and the esophagus. This part of the stomach serves as a one-way valve, ensuring that no acid ever goes back up to the esophagus.
But sometimes, certain triggers can weaken the LES, causing stomach contents to be regurgitated upwards. This results in acidic, pungent bile wafting onto the throat, typically accompanied by a burning sensation.
The Relation of Exercise With Acid Reflux
Can exercise induce acid reflux?
Getting a good workout is a crucial part of any healthy lifestyle, but sometimes too much working out can be the very cause of heartburn. Exercise-induced heartburn is a common occurrence that can happen to anyone, at any age.
Working out triggers acid reflux under certain conditions. These include:
- Your LMS is weak or too relaxed. Smoking is a known trigger of acid reflux. Nicotine relaxes the LMS and prevents the muscle from securing stomach acid right where it should be.
- Your energy drink contains ingredients that trigger acid reflux. Caffeine is the main ingredient in all energy drinks, and is a primary cause of acid reflux. Concentrated doses of caffeine can prove too much for the digestive tract, leading to the overproduction of stomach acids. Similarly, working out after drinking a carbonated energy drink can trigger the gases in your stomach, leading to heartburn.
- Your previous meal induces acid reflux. Like drinks, certain foods may be more of a heartburn fuel than others. This includes spicy and acidic foods, as well as alcohol and chocolate.
Can exercise make existing acid reflux worse?
Physical activity alone won’t make acid reflux worse, but certain movements will certainly do the trick. As explained by Dr. Eitan Rubinstein, an affiliated gastroenterologist with the Harvard Medical School, “Anytime you do anything strenuous, your stomach can tighten up, making contents flow upward, so anything can give you reflux if you strain yourself hard enough.”
She also explains how rapid breathing, something that is unavoidable in aerobic exercises, can cause the lungs to expand which “can draw reflux material into your esophagus”.
Specific activities are more prone to disturbing the stomach than others. She identifies any activity that involves bobbing up and down to be the main culprits for aggravating pre-existing acid reflux (source).
List of Exercises That Aggravate Acid Reflux
Not all physical activities are created equally, with some more harmful to your stomach than others. For example, a study suggests that weightlifters had higher instances of acid reflux during an 80-minute rest period than marathoners and cyclists (source).
Certain exercises are likelier to put pressure on the stomach, impede blood flow around the gastrointestinal area, both of which are considered triggers for acid reflux.
Introducing huge amounts of air to the esophagus through gulping or breathing may also affect the LES. Some athletic mechanics involving bending the waist and hanging upside down may also cause heartburn.
These exercises include:
- Sprinting and running. These aerobic exercises may be great for the heart, but they aren’t exactly accommodating with heartburn. The up and down motion can jostle contents in your stomach and irritate your digestive tract, while the sharp inhalations of air can relax the LMS and force acid into the esophagus.
- Weightlifting. The motion of weightlifters alone may strongly aggravate acid reflux. Lifting heavy weights causes the stomach to tighten, which can force the organ to regurgitate some of its contents upwards. It’s not uncommon to see powerlifters regurgitate stomach contents or vomit when they’re pushing their bodies to the limit since this exercise typically involves diaphragm contraction, which can push stomach acid upwards. More advanced lifters secure belts around their weights to maintain their form; this added restriction on the abdomen can add further stress to the gastrointestinal area.
- Gymnastics. Movements in gymnastics involve a lot of tumbling, spinning, and hanging down — all of which can irritate the stomach and cause heartburn.
- Cycling and Jump Rope. Pressing the knees close to the abdomen and consistently jumping down are two actions that have a higher chance of inducing heartburn than others. These activities are both aerobic in nature and also introduce pressure to the stomach. When the stomach exceeds the amount of pressure it can take, acid can travel upward into the esophagus because of acid reflux.
Tips on Managing Acid Reflux Before Exercise
- Adjust Your Diet. If you’re the kind of person who always needs to fuel up before going on a run or lifting some weights, the food you eat before working out may play an important role in acid reflux. Troubleshoot your feeding habits by observing which types of food give you acid reflux, and try to stay away from those before you exercise.
- East Slower. It’s tempting to shove food down your mouth while you’re rushing to head to the gym, but doctors say that’s not a good idea. The pace of your eating can be as influential as the food that you eat, so watch out for signs of heartburn during your morning rush to the gym.
- Eat Nothing At All. Acid reflux is triggered when stomach contents are irritated by jostling motion. Sometimes the solution is to eat nothing at all. Or if you really can’t go without eating anything, grab a bite of something small and substantial like a banana or a cracker.
- Eat At Least Two To Three Hours Before. Test out different meal intervals to see which one works best for you. Eating a big meal two hours before your workout may produce the same energy boost as a carbohydrate-heavy snack 1 hour before the gym. Experiment with different eating times to get the best results, but ensure that you eat at least 45 minutes before a sweat session.
- Drink Antacids. Over-the-counter reliefs are available to help neutralize stomach acid. Antacids are considered perfectly safe and can be used as a preventative measure every time you plan to exercise.
- Find A Better Routine. If you’re doing a routine with a lot of jumping motions, try and swap out some of the exercises with something more low-impact. There are plenty of exercises that don’t require jumping and running which can still improve cardiovascular and muscular strength and endurance; do those instead.
- Stay hydrated. Bringing a water jug to the gym may have more benefits than you realize. Aside from keeping you cool in-between exercises, drinking water can help calm your stomach and wash away stomach content. It cleanses the esophagus and can help relieve symptoms when they start acting up.
Approved Exercises for Patients With Acid Reflux
Yoga promotes flexibility, stability, and strength, without putting a strain on the abdomen. Although this low-impact exercise is generally considered one of the best ways to stay active for patients with acid reflux, be wary of inverted poses. Poses like downward dog and handstands may irritate the stomach and push the acid forward. Instead, stick to poses that don’t defy gravity.
Swimming is the ultimate aerobic exercise for patients suffering from acid reflux. Muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance are still tested, without putting unnecessary strain on your gastrointestinal area.
Swap out running and jogging for something a little more low-impact. In a recent study, going on a 10-minute walk every week can reduce the chances of early death (source). Walking is a great way to stay active without stressing the digestive tract. The best part is that you can do this exercise outside the gym and make it a part of your lifestyle.
FAQ – Acid Reflux and Working Out
Is it safe to exercise when I have acid reflux?
You’ll be fine as long as you stick to exercises that are approved for patients with acid reflux. In fact, some doctors even suggest gradually moving towards medium- to -high-intensity exercises, for as long as the body doesn’t exhibit aversion to these types of exercises.
We recommend getting a physical trainer to learn more about exercises suitable for your situation.
Is there a way to prevent acid reflux altogether?
Acid reflux can be caused by medical complications such as a hiatal hernia or poor lifestyle choices. Staying away from working out won’t fix acid reflux, although it may temporarily alleviate symptoms. The best way to cure acid reflux is to get to the root of the matter and implement any dietary, lifestyle, or medical changes necessary.
Choose Wellness, Choose Gastro Center NJ
Understanding what’s causing your acid reflux is the only way you can prevent the symptoms from appearing. Book an appointment with us to learn more about your gastrointestinal health. Let’s get in better shape, together.