Exercise Can Improve Your Gut Health

By Dr. Said Nabhan

Little things can add up to a lot when it comes to wellness. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when we exercise for better health, trillions of tiny organisms in our guts appear to get in better condition, too.

Exercising helps with gut health

Researchers have for years been exploring the link between exercise and the gut microbiome – a community of good bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in the intestines and help manage healthy digestion. The microbiome does this, largely, by regulating metabolism and improving immunity.

We at Cincinnati GI read through a compilation of that research (some brought to light in a recent report by the BBC), and it does indeed support the hunch that a good sweat works out for the intestines, as well.

Half an Hour Can Make a Difference

Many human studies have shown that moderate-to-vigorous workouts could enhance the diversity of gut bacteria, which is essential for a healthy gut microbiome. How much exercise? Some research indicates that 18 to 35 minutes a day, plus three resistance sessions a week, can make a difference.

One six-week study, during which participants performed three 30-to-60 minutes activity sessions a week, revealed a significant increase in a beneficial fatty acid called butyrate. Gut bacteria produce butyrate  while breaking down dietary fibers. This finding links exercise with healthy gut activity.

Other studies also have linked exercise to improved bacterial performance, resulting in reduced inflammation and a reduction in gut bacteria associated with obesity.

But How Does Working Out Alter the Gut?

It is still not clear exactly how exercise changes the gut microorganism, but there are theories.

One theory involves lactate, a compound our bodies produce in the muscles during exercise. Researchers believe lactate could fuel certain bacterial species that are good for digestion.

Another potential factor could be changes in the overall immune systems that result from regular exercise. The gut’s own immune system would be especially prone to exercise-induced changes because the gut’s health-promoting microorganisms are in direct contact with the gut’s immune cells.

And there’s that study that found exercise stimulates the growth of the fatty acid butyrate. Butyrate powers the cells lining the colon and helps regulate inflammation in the gut lining. This means exercise could help reduce the risks of inflammatory bowel disease and even cancer.

And the Cycle Can Continue

Here’s the bonus: A healthier gut could in turn improve exercise performance. Researchers at Harvard Medical School suggest that exercise stimulates the growth of a gut bacteria called Veillonella, which eat up lactate. The bacteria then convert the lactate it into fatty acids that stimulate energy, triggering a “positive feedback loop.”

Also, good gut microorganisms could help control the amount of hormones released due to exercise-related stress, which could improve workout recovery times. Research further suggests that exercise supports a healthier gut-brain relationship that improves mood.

Strength comes in numbers. When the heart races and muscles flex, trillions of microorganisms in our intestines grow stronger, too. And together, they will improve how you feel, even at rest.

To learn more about the gut microbiome, you can read our blog on the topic here. And you can read about how a plant-heavy diet benefits the gut microbiome here.