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Health & Exercise Forum

Physical Activity & Constipation: Exercise Moves You In the Right Way

Oct 29, 2012

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumWhile I fully expect to be at the “butt end” of many comments for this column, I feel compelled to address this topic at the request of several patients. It seems that many geriatric physical therapists commonly encounter patients that suffer from constipation which limits their participation in rehabilitation. Ironically, research demonstrates that exercise and activity actually help relieve constipation.

The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) reports that 3.1 million people in the United States suffer from constipation. They further report that this problem leads to almost 400,000 hospitalizations, 1.4 million visits to emergency rooms, 1 million prescriptions and 121 deaths each year. Constipation is defined by the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine as three or less bowel movements per week. It is also estimated that more than 27 percent of the elderly are affected.

Severe constipation can result in immediate medical attention in some cases due to intestinal obstruction. In addition to infrequent bowel movements, some symptoms include: feeling poorly, weight loss, loss of appetite, abdominal distention and/or pain, and vomiting.

Risk Factors for Constipation:

    • Age
    • Immobility
    • Inadequate fluid and fiber consumption
    • Recent Surgery
    • Medications:
      • Antihistamines
      • Antidepressants
      • Psychotropic Meds
      • Opioids
      • Calcium Channel Blockers
      • Antacids

Prevent Constipation:

Physical activity is one of the most important factors in preventing constipation. A minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity, 5 days per week helps significantly. However, if age and poor health limit activity, then frequent, short bouts of mobility and exercise are recommended. It is critical for this population to work on transfers from chair or bed to stand to maintain strength and mobility.

Maintain a Diet Rich in Fiber

Fruits, vegetables, and bran are essential. With a physician’s approval, supplements such as Metamucil or Citrucel can be helpful. Stool softeners, suppositories or enemas may also be worth discussing with your doctor.

Stay Active

Healthy people must continue to keep active. Get into good exercise habits at a young age and continue through life. Maintaining a consistent schedule of eating and exercise is also helpful. Some simple suggestions for beginning an exercise program for prevention of constipation in the healthy population are:

    • Get your physicians approval
    • Consult with a physical therapist to set up a program for your needs
      • Buy good running sneakers – not walking shoes
      • Plan to exercise 3-5 times per week for 30-35 minutes
      • Walk for aerobic fitness
      • Begin 5-10 minutes and add 1-2 minutes each session
      • Walk in a mall if it is too hot or too cold
      • Use light dumbbells, sandbag weights and resisted bands
      • Begin with 5-10 repetitions and add 1-2 reps each session
      • Alternate weight training days with walking days

Depending on your general health and ambulatory status, these endurance exercises may be appropriate for you. Therefore, consider one or two of the following as a good starting point:

    • Walk Around the House – Start walking around the house for 1-2 minutes nonstop. Every 1-2 hours. Then, add 1-2 minutes every week.
    • Static Marching – hold onto the countertop or back of chair and march in place for 30 seconds. Rest 1-2 minutes and repeat. Do 5 cycles. Add 5-10 seconds every week.
    • Climb the Steps – If you can do so safely, use the steps for exercise 1-2 times per day. Then, add 1-2 times per day.
    • Walk the Mall/Treadmill – If you are able to get out of the house and can tolerate more extensive endurance exercises, get out and walk the malls or use a treadmill.
    • Recumbent Bike – If balance is a problem, but you can tolerate more extensive endurance exercise, use a recumbent bike (a bike with a backrest)


Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

Keep moving, eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and live long and well!

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum!”

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an affiliated faculty member at the University of  Scranton, PT Dept.