This review describes the current state of knowledge on the hazards of exercise and the potential benefits of physical activity on the gastrointestinal tract. In particular, acute strenuous exercise may provoke gastrointestinal symptoms such as heartburn or diarrhoea. A substantial part (20–50%) of endurance athletes are hampered by these symptoms which may deter them from participation in training and competitive events. Nevertheless, these acute symptoms are transient and do not hamper the athlete's health in the long term. The only exception is repeated gastrointestinal bleeding during training and competition, which in the long term may occasionally lead to iron deficiency and anaemia. In contrast, repetitive exercise periods at a relatively low intensity may have protective effects on the gastrointestinal tract. There is strong evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of colon cancer by up to 50%. Less convincing evidence exists for cholelithiasis and constipation. Physical activity may reduce the risk of diverticulosis, gastrointestinal haemorrhage, and inflammatory bowel disease although this cannot be substantiated firmly. Up to now, underlying mechanisms are poorly understood although decreased gastrointestinal blood flow, neuro-immuno-endocrine alterations, increased gastrointestinal motility, and mechanical bouncing during exercise are postulated. Future research on exercise associated digestive processes should give more insight into the relationship between physical activity and the function of the gastrointestinal tract.
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- Abbreviations used in this paper:
- relative risk
- Crohn's disease
- ulcerative colitis
- maximal oxygen consumption
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