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Gotta Run: Your digestive system and ‘keeping things moving’

While on my recent bicycle ride, I had lots of time to think about numerous subjects. I remember having an interesting discussion with a very good friend about getting your day off to a good start. With many ways to define a good start, I chose this week to discuss what we can do to enhance our digestive efforts. The friend said, “Nothing better to start your morning than a quick and productive trip to the bathroom, before moving on to doing other things to make the best day possible.”

With the physical demands of riding those hills and miles, most of my days had a caloric intake of between 5,500 and 7,000. The top side of that is more than three times what is required for a normal day. My days were not normal, and therefore my body had to process a lot of food, retain that nutrition and still keep working.

“Keeping things moving,” no matter the caloric needs, is the key. Here is how to do it, along with the benefits. Improving your diet and getting more physical activity can speed up your digestion. One of the best things for me was to relieve the feeling of fullness, while at the same time noticing that my waist gets smaller.

Your diet is the first place to look when you want to improve your digestive health. Eating a lot of processed foods such as fast food, white bread and pasta, chips and baked goods can cause constipation, and so can too much cheese and meat.

These foods are low in water and fiber, two substances critical for regular bowel movements. Beverages with caffeine and alcoholic drinks can also back you up.

Dietary fiber is critical to digestive health. Found only in plant foods, fiber is the indigestible material that makes up the cell walls of plants. It passes through the human body mostly undigested, but it adds bulk to stool and plays a key role in keeping things moving. It also holds water in the bowel to increase the softness of stool, making it easier to pass.

To meet the recommended daily allowance of fiber, men need to get 38 grams and women need to get 28 grams daily. Especially rich sources of fiber include whole grains, beans, nuts, berries, oats and crunchy vegetables like carrots and celery.

Along with fiber, water helps lubricate stool to keep it soft and moving along through the digestive tract. Dehydration can lead to hard, dry stool that results in constipation. To make matters worse, caffeine and alcohol can prevent the body from holding onto much-needed water. Getting enough water daily was a problem for me.

Eating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables will naturally add more water to your diet. In fact, about 20% of your daily recommended water intake comes from food. But you still need to make sure to drink plenty of fluids — caffeine-free and sugar-free. Including the 20% from food, men need a total of 15.5 cups of fluids per day and women need 11.5 cups. I think this still only qualifies as a minimum amount.

A lack of physical activity is a major contributing factor to constipation, and the resulting increased time in the bathroom. Exercise speeds up the movement of food through the digestive system, which prevents water loss from stool. This prevents the hard, dry stool characteristic of constipation. Exercise also increases your heart rate, which helps to stimulate peristalsis, the intestinal contractions that move waste out of the body.

Any kind of physical activity is beneficial for preventing and relieving constipation and a slow digestive system. Simply walking for 10 to 15 minutes at a time can speed up digestion. But to improve both your digestion and your overall health, follow the exercise recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which advises all adults to get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity each week.

Our next race upcoming in the area is the T-Man’s 5K on Oct. 9 in Mooresville, benefiting teen suicide prevention. www.salisburyrowanrunners.org

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