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Sitting too long can lead to an array of health problems (obesity and poor posture, for example), but the impact on gut health is often overlooked. In this article, we’ll dig deeper into how digestion and gut health are affected by too much sitting, and what to do about it.

While its effects can be profound, its causes are quite simple. The two primary factors that negatively impact your gut health from too much sitting are decreased blood flow and increased pressure on your digestive tract.

Decreased Blood Flow

We know that blood flow is lessened when we spend a long time sitting, and the gut is just one of many systems negatively affected. Since sitting compresses the organs and blood flow is decreased, it is common for bowel function to suffer.

In fact, a sedentary lifestyle has been positively linked with inflammatory bowel disease and other digestive problems. A sedentary lifestyle can also be a leading cause of constipation, which leads to a myriad of complications if not quickly addressed.

Increased Pressure on Your Digestive Tract

One of the worst things you can do after a big meal is sit for a long period of time. Sitting in general causes the contents of your abdomen (which include your intestinal tract) to compress, which slows digestion. Health professionals will agree that sluggish digestion is a major culprit of excess bloating and gas, cramps, heartburn and general discomfort after eating.

While further research is needed, one study suggests that too much sitting can even have negative impacts on our gut microbiome, which refers to the levels of bacteria that populate your gut. The study goes on to say that this resulting dysbiosis (improper balance of gut bacteria) can lead to intestinal problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Celiac Disease (CD), inflammatory bowel disease and more.

5 Things You Can Do About It Starting Today

Unfortunately, many people have a job that involves sitting for long periods every day, and this is largely unavoidable. If that’s you, try incorporating these habits into your daily routine:

  1. Sit with proper posture. This means having your shoulders relaxed, sitting up straight with arms close to your sides, positioning a computer so that you’re looking straight at it (not up or down), elbows bent at 90 degrees, feet flat on the floor and something behind your low back for support (a small, rolled up towel works).
  2. Take advantage of your breaks to move around. Whether this is a 30-minute walk on your lunch break, five minutes of stair climbs, or stretching, try to incorporate as much movement as possible into your day.
  3. Set your alarm! Set your alarm once every hour (or two) to get up and move around for five minutes.
  4. In the morning or at night (or both), make sure to stretch. Especially target hip flexors and stretches that allow you to move your back, like cat/cow pose.
  5. Alternate between sitting and standing while you work.

Lifestyle-related causes of constipation

Constipation can be caused by many different lifestyle factors that often work in combination, including:

  • A change in routine – normal bowel motions depend on the regular and rhythmic contraction of the bowels. This is part of the body’s internal ‘clock’ and is often upset with changes in routine. This type of constipation is often seen in shift workers and travellers.
  • Low-fibre diet – as fibre is indigestible, it adds bulk to the faeces, making it more easily pushed along the digestive tract. There are two broad types of fibre; soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre helps to soften the faeces. Good sources of soluble fibre include legumes, fruits and vegetables. Insoluble fibre adds bulk to the faeces, helping it to move more quickly through the bowel. Good sources of insoluble fibre are in wheat bran, wholegrain breads and cereals.
  • Insufficient water – the fibre in faeces will only plump up with water. Constipation can occur from a high-fibre diet if insufficient water is consumed.
  • Lack of regular exercise – living a sedentary lifestyle or being restricted in movement due to a disability are common causes of constipation.
  • A tendency to ‘put off’ going to the toilet – ignoring the urge to go means that more water will be extracted from the stools, making them difficult to pass. Regularly ignoring this urge may make the body less sensitive to normal signals to go to the toilet.
  • Some medications – such as narcotics (particularly codeine), antidepressants, iron supplements, calcium-channel blockers (antihypertensives, particularly verapamil) and non-magnesium antacids are known to slow bowel movements.
  • Pregnancy – the action of hormones, reduced activity and the pressure of the growing uterus against the intestines mean that constipation is common during pregnancy.
  • Advancing age – constipation is more common in the elderly. This is due to a number of factors, including reduced intestinal muscle contractions and reliance on regular medications.
  • Illness – a period of illness, particularly an illness resulting in hospitalisation and bed-rest, typically results in constipation. Factors include change in routine, shyness, reduced food intake, pain (especially after abdominal surgery), and pain-relief medication such as morphine. Short-term treatment with laxatives is often required, but may be overlooked.

Treatment for Constipation

How can I treat my constipation?

You can most often treat your constipation at home by doing the following

Change what you eat and drink

Changing what you eat and drink may make your stools softer and easier to pass. To help relieve your symptoms

  • eat more high-fiber foods
  • drink plenty of water and other liquids if you eat more fiber or take a fiber supplement

Read about what you should eat and drink to help relieve constipation. Depending on your age and sex, adults should get 22 to 34 grams of fiber a day.

Get regular physical activity

Getting regular physical activity may help relieve your symptoms.

Try bowel training

Your doctor may suggest that you try to train yourself to have a bowel movement at the same time each day to help you become more regular. For example, trying to have a bowel movement 15 to 45 minutes after breakfast may help, because eating helps your colon move stool.

Make sure you give yourself enough time to have a bowel movement, and use the bathroom as soon as you feel the need to go. Try to relax your muscles or put your feet on a footstool to make yourself more comfortable.

Stop taking certain medicines or dietary supplements

If you think certain medicines or dietary supplements  are causing your constipation, talk with your doctor. He or she may change the dose or suggest a different medicine that does not cause constipation. Don’t change or stop any medicine or supplement without talking with a health care professional.

Take over-the-counter medicines

Your health care professional may recommend using a laxative for a short time. He or she will tell you what type of laxative is best for you

  • fiber supplements (Citrucel, FiberCon, Metamucil)
  • osmotic agents (Milk of Magnesia, Miralax)
  • stool softeners  (Colace, Docusate)
  • lubricants, such as mineral oil (Fleet)
  • stimulants (Correctol, Dulcolax)

You should only use stimulants if your constipation is severe or other treatments have not worked.

If you’ve been taking laxatives for a long time and can’t have a bowel movement without taking a laxative, talk with your doctor about how you can slowly stop using them. If you stop taking laxatives, over time, your colon should start moving stool normally.

How do doctors treat constipation?

If self-care treatments don’t work, your doctor may prescribe a medicine to treat your constipation. If you’re taking an over-the-counter or prescription medicine or supplement that can cause constipation, your doctor may suggest you stop taking it, change the dose, or switch to a different one. Talk with your doctor before changing or stopping any medicines.

Prescription medicines

Your doctor may prescribe one of the following medicines for constipation

  • lubiprostone —a medicine prescribed to increase fluid in your digestive tract, which can help reduce pain in your abdomen, make your stool softer, and increase how often you have bowel movements
  • linaclotide or plecanatide—medicines that help make your bowel movements regular if you have irritable bowel syndrome with constipation or long-lasting constipation without a known cause
  • prucalopride—a medicine that helps your colon move stool if you have long-lasting constipation without a known cause

Biofeedback therapy

If you have problems with the muscles that control bowel movements, your doctor may recommend biofeedback therapy to retrain your muscles. By using biofeedback therapy, you can change how you make your muscles work.


Your doctor may recommend surgery to treat an anorectal blockage caused by rectal prolapse if other treatments don’t work. Your doctor may perform surgery to remove your colon if your colon muscles don’t work correctly. If your doctor recommends surgery, ask about the benefits and risks.

How can I prevent constipation?

You can help prevent constipation by doing some of the same things that treat constipation

  • get enough fiber in your diet
  • drink plenty of water and other liquids
  • get regular physical activity
  • try to have a bowel movement at the same time every day

What foods should you avoid if constipated?

Avoid low-fiber foods that are harder to digest, including red meats, dairy products, processed foods, and anything made with refined flour (like white bread). You should also steer clear of fried foods.

What other ways can you treat constipation?

In addition to diet, exercise can help stimulate the bowels and move stools faster through the digestive tract. Over-the-counter fiber supplements can also help.

Is a fiber supplement just as good for constipation as the fiber in plant-based foods?

Fiber supplements such as Metamucil are an effective way to get your bowels moving again. The fiber in plant-based foods relieves constipation, plus you get all the other health benefits that come with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Learn more about how you can help prevent constipation with eating, diet, and nutrition.

Things to remember

  • Most cases of constipation are successfully treated by eating a diet high in fibre, drinking more fluids and exercising daily.
  • Complications of chronic constipation include haemorrhoids, faecal impaction and rectal prolapse.
  • Over-the-counter laxatives are fine in the short term, but seek advice if the problem persists.
  • One of the causes of bowel disorders is sedentary work, so try to take breaks and get as much physical exercise as possible during work. If you have to climb stairs or take the lift, always choose to move your legs and exercise your stiff body.


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Prepared by Viktorija Stučytė based on online sources