Improve gut health with regular exercise, new study finds

Of course, it’s no news that exercise helps your stomach. Gentle yoga has often been considered a good remedy for constipation, especially poses such as pavanamuktasana (knee to chest), which literally translates to wind relief pose thanks to the “massage” it gives to the colon and surrounding tissues.

“Other forms of exercise are also known to help with gut issues, such as improving short-term constipation,” notes Evelyn Toner, sports nutritionist at Gut Health Clinic. “Alternatively, endurance exercise has been shown to cause bowel discomfort – reducing blood flow to the area. Prolonged exercise can lead to increased intestinal permeability and exercise-induced bowel symptoms such as as bloating, discomfort, nausea and diarrhea.

That’s why marathon runners often end up with a dodgy stomach – but unless you do an endurance-based sport frequently, this shouldn’t be a problem (and if you are, talk to a sport-specific expert who can help you). More importantly, “exercise has longer-term benefits on the gut, such as improving the diversity of the gut microbiome, reducing the risk of colon cancer, diverticulosis, and inflammatory bowel disease. gut,” says Toner.

In the 2021 study, researchers found that a nine-week high-intensity indoor cycling training program led to improvements in gut health. Most notable was an increase in Firmicutes – a bacterium known to produce butyrate, a molecule known for its role in regulating energy metabolism and increasing insulin sensitivity – and Actinobacteria, an anti- inflammatory. The researchers also noticed a decrease in proteobacteria and cyanobacteria, strains of bacteria associated with pro-inflammation.

A woman doing yoga with one knee to her chest
Certain yoga poses have long been known to impact the gut.

The results are similar to those of previous studies. For example, a Literature review 2017 by researchers from the University of Naples found that “Available data strongly support that, in addition to other well-known internal and external factors, exercise appears to be an environmental factor that can determine changes in the qualitative and quantitative microbial composition of the gut with benefits possible for the host”.

The exact reason why exercise brings these changes to our gut is unknown. The researchers in the 2021 paper noted that “exercise, particularly high-intensity exercise, may promote a spontaneous shift in food choices toward a healthier direction” and therefore “certain changes in the gut microbiota may be due to differences in food intake, in addition to exercise itself.” However, other studies have found changes in the microbiome after exercise even without dietary changes.

And another benefit of prioritizing your stomach is that the relationship works both ways: better gut health has been shown to improve training, especially VO2max. And in a 2016 article published in the journal Nutrients, researchers found that six weeks of probiotic supplementation increased muscle mass and grip strength and improved energy recovery and physical performance. The researchers said this could be due to strains of bacteria producing lactic acid, “which in turn could be used by bacteria using lactate to produce butyrate.”

If you’re convinced of the benefits of moving more to support your gut, know that there’s no better kind of exercise, Toner says. And keep in mind that regular endurance training might actually lead to greater bowel complaints, but in general, “a combination of cardio and strength exercise would be optimal for health, and as the benefits come from ‘long-term exercises, the key is to find something you enjoy and can consistently stick to,’” she adds.

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