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There’s a reason to pay attention to how often you poop: Regular bowel movements can be essential for good health.

Let’s go over why that’s so, as well as some tips to help you have better bowel movements, including how to pass hard stools.

As far as how often to have a bowel movement, there isn’t an exact number. Bowel activity varies for each person. However, medicine and science will often use the “basic rule of three” to describe a typical movement, meaning you have bowel activity anywhere between three times a day and three times a week.

You’ll poop more or less each day (or week) depending on a number of factors, such as your:

  • diet
  • age
  • physical activity level

While the appearance and consistency of a person’s poop can vary from person to person, most people’s poop is formed, brown, and soft. If yours is rarely like this (such as always hard or always liquid), you may want to speak with a doctor.

Pooping shouldn’t be painful. If you frequently have bowel movements that are painful to pass or result in cramping after you make them, it’s time to speak with a doctor. You could have a condition like:

Many people occasionally experience episodes of diarrhea or constipation, where you can’t go to the bathroom easily or very often. You can try some steps to treat them at home.

Constipation and diarrhea both involve concerns with the passage of stool. But while constipation is infrequent bowel activity or difficulty passing stool, diarrhea refers to loose or watery stools. Different factors can trigger either symptom, such as:

  • diet
  • food intolerances
  • medications
  • conditions affecting the gastrointestinal tract

Regardless of the underlying cause, though, constipation and diarrhea occur when intestinal contractions either speed up or slow down. Gut contractions help move stool through the colon. But sometimes, the muscles contract too much or too little. Diarrhea happens when these muscles contract more than usual, whereas constipation happens when they don’t contract enough.

Tips for incontinence or diarrhea

  • Avoid foods known to irritate the stomach and cause loose stools (especially caffeine, dairy, and alcohol).
  • Drink plenty of water or electrolyte-containing beverages to stay hydrated.
  • Increase your fiber intake to add bulk to your stool.

Tips for constipation

  • Try to get at least 25 to 31 grams of fiber per day.
  • Increase your physical activity level.
  • Always use the bathroom when you get the urge to go — don’t try and hold it.

However, if constipation or diarrhea become your consistent stool pattern, speak with a primary care doctor. They may recommend treatments or refer you to a specialist (called a gastroenterologist) who can perform further testing.

Bowel movements (sometimes called BMs for short) are your body’s way of getting rid of waste that doesn’t have any use in the body. While it may not look like it, poop is about three-fourths water. The remainder is a collection of materials that includes:

  • bacteria
  • fats
  • fiber (undigested foods, including nuts and seeds)
  • food wastes
  • mucus
  • salts

Another poop component is bilirubin, a brownish-red substance that’s the result of a breakdown of wastes from the liver and bone marrow. Bilirubin is what gives poop its usual brown color.

A person has to poop to survive because the body doesn’t have a way of getting rid of these wastes otherwise. If a person doesn’t poop for many days, the stool can back up in the intestines. If this goes on for too long, it starts to pose a risk to your safety and can damage your organs. This is why pooping is so important for your health.

Pooping is part physical, part mental. If you aren’t pooping as easily or often as you’d like, addressing these aspects can help.

Drink water

Water and fiber: These are two major components of poop that are part of your diet. Making efforts to drink more water daily can help make your bowel movements easier to pass.

Eat fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables

In addition, it’s important to eat foods with plenty of fiber. This adds bulk to your stool, which stimulates the bowels to move and propel your stool forward. Foods that contain fiber include:

  • fruits, such as strawberries, raspberries, and apples
  • nuts and seeds, such as pistachios, almonds, or sunflower seeds
  • vegetables, such as broccoli, lima beans, and carrots
  • whole-grain breads, such as seven-grain, cracked wheat, or pumpernickel

Add fiber foods slowly

Don’t incorporate too much fiber into your diet at a time — it can have an opposite, constipating effect. Instead, try to add a serving every 5 days to allow your digestive tract time to acclimate itself to the increased fiber.

Cut out irritating foods

In addition to constipation that makes stools harder to pass, some people experience stool that’s too loose. When this is the case, cutting out foods that can irritate the stomach can help. Examples to cut from your diet include:

  • alcoholic beverages
  • caffeinated drinks, like tea, coffee, and sodas
  • fatty foods
  • foods that contain sugar alcohols that end in the letters -ol (such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol)
  • spicy foods

Try cutting out these foods to see if your bowel movements are less watery. You can also keep a food and symptom diary to identify connections between the foods you eat and the symptoms you experience.

Move more

Your intestines have a natural motion that moves stool forward. If your body isn’t moving stool through fast enough, then you can help it out with increased exercise. Physical activity, such as walking, running, or swimming, can all promote motion that helps you poop better. Even short amounts of activity — 10 to 15 minutes — can help.

Change your bathroom posture

Another tip you can try has to do with your posture on the toilet. Changing the angle of your legs changes the angle of your colon. Toilet footstools are one accessory that you can use in the bathroom to do this. Some people find that it helps them have a more comfortable and effective bowel movement. Researchers even studied their use with the help of 52 volunteers.

Even if you don’t have a footstool to raise your feet, you can still try adjusting your posture. While you’re sitting on the toilet, try planting your feet on the ground so that your knees are higher than your seat or higher than usual.

Find bathroom footstools online.

Keep your bowel movements in mind

Doctors have identified a mind-body connection to pooping. For example, many people cringe at the idea of pooping in a public restroom.

Here are some ways to address the connection between your brain and intestines:

  • Remember that pooping is a natural part of every person’s physical needs. Everyone poops. You have nothing to be ashamed of if you have to go.
  • Try to poop at the same time every day (such as in the morning at home, after you eat breakfast). This can help to train your body to go at the same time in a place where you’re more comfortable.
  • Go to the bathroom when you feel the need. Try to not hold it in or put off a bowel movement. If you feel the need to go, take advantage of your body’s readiness.
  • Try engaging in stress-relieving activities if your anxiety levels are creeping up and your stomach starts to cramp. Examples include taking deep breaths, doing seated stretches like rolling your shoulders backward and forward, listening to calming music, or repeating a positive mantra.

Stress and pooping are highly connected. Try to create a calming environment in your bathroom where you have privacy. Avoid rushing yourself — give yourself at least 10 minutes to go to the bathroom.

Bowel movements require food, fluids, and calm to create a more comfortable experience. If you try these tips, and your symptoms aren’t getting better, speak with a doctor. There are lots of medicines and approaches that can help you enhance your intestinal health.