Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Therapeutic Yoga Practitioner, Jennifer Smallridge, shows us how to use movement for better digestion.
What is up with our gut? Sometimes we prepare delicious, healthy (and totally Insta-worthy) food only to find ourselves swollen, bloated and generally uncomfortable later on.
Of course all digestive issues should be checked out by your health professional, especially if you’re experiencing a food intolerance or allergy, but it’s nice to learn how different types of movement can help you on your way to happy insides.
Check in with yourself
Before we explore some gut-friendly exercises, let’s consider the act of digestion. We eat food, we break it down mechanically with our teeth and tongue, and then chemically in our acidic stomach environment. This mixture goes into the small intestine, where approximately 1.5 metres of tubing is bundled up and dedicated to extracting the good stuff (nutrients, vitamins, minerals) from our food. Did you know that digestion can only take place in resting conditions? So it would make sense that if we eat on the go, or have a stressful day, our body is trying to juggle the frantic environment with the inner stillness it needs to digest food properly.
If you’re having recurring stomach issues after eating, try doing this daily: place your hands on your belly, and take a deep breath in. Follow this breath all the way out. Feel the belly rise and fall. Repeat for ten breaths (you may wish to physically count them out loud or in your mind). This deep breathing activity can switch your nervous system out of survival mode and into ‘rest and digest’ mode – which makes sense, because if you feel like you’re constantly under threat, your body is going to move blood flow away from the inner organs and towards the working muscles. This does not create a good environment to digest our food, and hopefully will discourage you from eating at your desk if you have alerts and emails popping up!
Timing your food and movement
A note on eating and exercise – particularly if you work out at a high intensity – physical activity, like stress, also causes a shift in blood flow away from the gut and towards your muscles to fuel your movement. Therefore, food ingested before exercise should be ‘light’ in nature. It’s best to avoid high-fibre/fat/protein foods as they can cause stomach aches and heart burn if eaten too close to your activity. It is also important to stay adequately hydrated, as research has shown that mild dehydration can increase the severity of stomach symptoms.
We can use exercise for goodness in our gut too: The Gastroenterological Society of Australia says that cardiovascular exercise can stimulate the muscles around the intestines and help to move contents through the digestive system. It explains why a light walk can feel great after a heavy meal! Deep, diaphragmatic breathing (as outlined above) also works in this way.
Harnessing the power of yoga
Yoga is holistic in nature and we can certainty draw on yogic principles to soothe an unhappy tummy. Try the following to beat the bloat:
- Stomach self-massage: Take your favourite oil (coconut works wonders for the skin as well) and lay on your back to perform gentle, clockwise circles outwards from your belly button with your hand. You might like to add some essential oils for fragrance, and to enhance relaxation.
- Knees to chest: This is a beautiful beginner yoga pose which is exactly as it sounds – laying on your back, draw your knees towards your chest with your hands. Stay here for 5-10 breaths. You may wish to circle the knees or rock gently from side to side to further ease abdominal discomfort.
- Spinal twist: Remaining on your back with your knees bent, place your feet on the floor (hip-width apart is great) and let your knees gently fall to one side. You can use your opposite hand to guide the twist. Hold each side for 3-5 breaths, relaxing the stomach as you do so.
- Seated side bend: Take a comfortable cross legged position and place one elbow on the ground, reaching up and over with the other arm. One side of the belly is compressed and the other is stretched in this position, so if you need to, you can place a block or cushion under the elbow to create more space. For each side stretch, hold for 5 breaths.
Digestion is a lengthy process, so be sure to take note of which foods you are eating in the lead up to your abdominal discomfort. It is a good habit to try to eat mindfully, slowly, and chewing each mouthful completely so that less work has to be done below.