A hiatal hernia is a common medical condition where a portion of the upper stomach pushes through a hiatus, or opening, in the diaphragm muscle and into the chest.

While it’s most common in older adults, age isn’t the only risk factor for a hiatal hernia. It can also be caused by strain on the diaphragm from prolonged heavy lifting and coughing, as well as from lifestyle factors like smoking.

Exercise is one way to manage many chronic health conditions, and losing weight can help minimize the symptoms of a hiatal hernia. However, certain exercises can actually make your hiatal hernia worse by putting strain on the abdominal area or aggravating heartburn, chest pain, and other symptoms.

You don’t have to avoid exercise entirely, but you’ll want to focus on workouts that won’t aggravate your hernia. Talk to a doctor about the following exercise considerations before you get started.

Overall, you can work out if you have a hiatal hernia. Exercising can also help you lose weight, if needed, which may improve symptoms.

The key though, is focusing on exercises that won’t strain the area in which your hernia is located. This would mean that any exercises or lifting routines that use the upper abdominal area might not be appropriate.

Instead, the following exercises are considered safe for a hiatal hernia:

Another consideration is if you have acid reflux with your hiatal hernia, as more intense exercises can make your symptoms worse. This is why jogging and walking might be preferred over running, as these are done at a lower intensity.

As a rule of thumb, it’s important to avoid exercises that can strain your abdominal area. Otherwise, you can risk making your symptoms worse. It’s also possible for an asymptomatic hiatal hernia to become symptomatic after strain from heavy lifting.

The following exercises should be avoided if you have a hiatal hernia:

Hiatal hernia lifting restrictions

Not only is it unsafe to lift heavy weights with a hiatal hernia, but other heavy lifting activities can also put further strain on your hernia.

These include lifting furniture, boxes, or other heavy objects. It’s recommended that you get assistance lifting heavier items, especially if you have a larger hernia.

If you look online for “natural” ways to treat a hiatal hernia, some bloggers tout diet along with specific exercises that are said to strengthen your abdominal area.

It’s debatable whether strengthening exercises can actually treat a hernia, or if they just minimize your symptoms. In any case, consider talking to a doctor about the following exercises.

Exercises to strengthen the diaphragm

Diaphragmatic breathing consists of deeper breathing techniques that help increase the efficiency of oxygen flow. Over time, these exercises may even help strengthen the diaphragm muscle. Here’s one method:

  1. Lie down or sit in a comfortable position, placing one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
  2. Breathe in as deeply as you can until you can feel your stomach press against your hand.
  3. Hold, then exhale and feel your stomach move back away from your hand. Repeat for several breaths each day.

Yoga exercises for hiatal hernia

Gentle yoga exercises can help hiatal hernia in a few ways. First, the deep breathing techniques can strengthen your diaphragm. You’ll also see increased strength and flexibility overall. Some poses, such as Chair Pose, are thought to help strengthen the abdominal area without straining it.

Be sure to tell your yoga instructor about your condition so they can help modify the poses. You’ll want to avoid inversions that may worsen your symptoms. These may include Bridge and Forward Fold.

Exercises for weight loss

Losing weight may improve your symptoms of a hiatal hernia. Exercise, along with diet, can help create the calorie deficit needed to burn body fat. As you lose weight, you should start seeing your symptoms decrease over time.

It may be difficult to prevent a hiatal hernia, especially if you have risk factors or if you were born with a large opening in your diaphragm. Still, there are habits you can adopt to help minimize your symptoms, including:

  • quitting smoking, with help from your doctor who can create a cessation plan that’s right for you
  • avoiding lifting heavy items
  • not lying down after eating
  • eating within 2 to 3 hours of bedtime
  • avoiding heartburn-triggering foods, such as onions, spices, tomatoes, and caffeine
  • not wearing tight clothing and belts, which can make acid reflux worse
  • elevating the head of your bed between 8 and 10 inches

While the symptoms of hiatal hernia can become a nuisance, this condition is extremely common. In fact, it’s estimated that about 60 percent of adults have hiatal hernias by age 60.

Weightlifting and other straining exercises may not be appropriate with a hiatal hernia, but you shouldn’t rule out exercise entirely. Some exercises — especially cardiovascular routines — can help you lose weight and improve your symptoms. Others might help strengthen the diaphragm.

Talk to a doctor before you start these exercises, especially if you’re new to working out. They can also help you establish a routine with room for gradual improvements.