How Exercise Improves Your Gut Health—And the One Thing You Need To Know To Take Advantage

Photo: Getty Images/xavierarnau
One of the most fascinating areas of biological research over the last decade or so has been focused on our microbiome. Scientists have found that our digestive system contains trillions of microscopic organisms that are essential to many of our body’s functions—from digestion to immunity. This network of little magic workers is known as the gut microbiota, and researchers are finding that it’s even more important to our overall health than we once thought.

As it turns out, taking care of your gut requires a bit more than just popping that probiotic each morning. Everything from your environment to the medications you’re taking can have an impact, which makes sense when you think about it.

More surprising? Those workouts you’re rocking are also boosting your gut health. Yes, you read that right. Research has shown a positive connection between exercise and our microbiome, and the benefits extend way beyond our metabolism. But how exactly can spending time at the gym influence our gut—and how can we make the most of it?

How exercise improves our gut health

While researchers continue to study the gut and the factors that influence its health, the data available so far supports the idea that your sweat sessions can help regulate and stabilize your microbiome.

But what exercise is most beneficial? The broad answer to that question is simply “regular exercise.” Working out consistently, no matter the intensity or type of movement, will help you build and maintain a healthy microbiome. The Mayo Clinic recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, and one interesting study found that a prolonged hiatus from those routine workouts can actually reverse their microbiota benefits. However, it is believed that adding variety to your training will bring different benefits to your digestive system and beyond.

Low or moderate-intensity exercise, for instance, can reduce transient stool time—meaning, it gets things flowing to help you poop. This limits the amount of contact between the GI tract and pathogens in your waste. Because of this protective nature, it appears to reduce the risk of colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and diverticulosis. Activities like walking, light jogging, restorative yoga, dynamic stretching, and swimming or cycling at a casual pace would all do the trick.

Strenuous exercise on the other hand can actually work against gut health since it triggers the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. If you’re working out hard enough that it’s difficult to carry on a conversation, your body perceives this as increased stress and prioritizes blood flow to the organs required to survive, hitting the pause button on digestion. (You may even notice this leads to certain digestive issues.) Vigorous exercise of course has its own benefits, but it’s important to prioritize rest between sessions because a lack of recovery can affect the health of the gut microbiome, its ability to remove waste, and the permeability of its lining over time.

However, any physical activity not directly required for normal day-to-day survival has been shown to increase variation in the gut microbiota and the concentration of n-butyrate, which is the preferred fuel for cells of the colon. We know that butyrate helps protect us against colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease, but it has also been shown to increase energy expenditure, improve insulin sensitivity, and decrease fatty tissue.

Studies have even found that the increased variation in the gut microbiota is associated with peak oxygen uptake and reduced chronic inflammation in the body. So exercising helps your gut—and your gut helps you maximize your workouts. A win-win!

That doesn’t mean your gym sessions are all it takes to cultivate a healthy gut. While studies show that exercise fosters a unique microbiome independent of diet, it is still important to maintain well-balanced nutrition: Stock up on prebiotics with high-fiber choices like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and make sure you’re regularly eating probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha tea, and pickled vegetables—these contain live microbiota that can help support your microbiome.

A healthy gut supports digestion, immunity, and metabolic function, all of which are influential in preventing and treating disease. So keep up a well-balanced diet—and those workouts! Your gut will be grateful.

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