In this article:
- How exercise affects your gut health
- Why is a healthy gut so important for your overall health?
- The most effective exercises to boost digestive health & burn stubborn belly fat
- Support your workout with adequate nutrition
Before we dive into the connection between exercise routines and gut flora, let's get a good background on the gut. Typically, when you think "gut", you think of the digestive system; the gut is responsible for digesting foods and absorbing nutrients into the body. What relatively new research is finding, however, is that your gut impacts much much more than that. The gut-brain axis is a term for which your gut shares information between the gut and your brain. This is why you might get an upset stomach when you're nervous. It even works the other way around - irritable bowel syndrome is linked to having more frequent headaches and migraines too.
Before we jump into the meat of this article, let me tell you a little story. Growing up in Canada, my sister and I were competitive figure skaters for our entire youth. I had a lot of speed and power, but my little sister was objectively...just better. Except when it came to competition day. Every time she was alone on the ice in front of the judges, a wave of nausea would come over her in the first minute of her long program. She’d take a 7-10 second break to stare at the ice surface, bend over, vomit, wipe her face, then continue on. The rest of her performance was flawless. She’d nail every spin & jump. Her artistic points reflected this nervous little stint but once she got it out of her system she did just fine. So next time you’re nervous about a presentation, performance, or interview, remember that your gut may just follow sync.
Back to our topic at hand, your gut microbiome is made up of hundreds of different kinds of gut bacteria that are beneficial to your health. The more gut microbes you have the better because they assist in the production of short-chain fatty acids which reduce inflammation. These gut microbiotas determine what nutrients are absorbed in the body, but they can become damaged or unbalanced. When this happens, it's common to experience constipation, unexplained weight loss or gain, bloating, heartburn, inflammation, skin irritation, or even inflammatory bowel disease or leaky gut syndrome. Typically, this can be fixed in part with protein supplements, prebiotics, probiotics, and a good deal of fermented foods, but research is revealing another important player in the gut health matrix.
Since we already gave it away in the intro, we'll just say it - yes, exercise is good for your gut. Cardiorespiratory fitness, or the efficiency at which your circulatory and respiratory systems are providing oxygen to your muscles during physical activity, is correlated with a greater diversity of all the good bacteria and microorganisms in the gut. One recent study compared otherwise similar participants' gut flora to their rates of cardiorespiratory fitness. After just ten days, they concluded that participants who engaged in relatively intense exercise on a daily basis had better-balanced guts with more diverse bacterial flora than those who lived sedentary lifestyles.
You don't have to be a HIIT fan or pro athlete to see gut benefits either. Another study found that taking a 30-minute brisk walk every day paired with a brief 11-minute home workout helped to improve the symptoms of constipation. Jogging and cycling were also found to help increase gut transit time by up to 30 percent. Exercise is a key part of your physical and mental well-being, but you don't have to overexert yourself to reap all the good for your gut health benefits.
When the microbes in your gut are unbalanced, it becomes apparent in many different ways. When your gut is balanced and contains a variety of healthy bacteria, it may have the following benefits:
When it comes to digestive health, there is no one 2-week miracle program; people of all fitness levels and lifestyles are welcomed! Some exercises are better than others when it comes to maximizing your gut health, but there are many different exercise routines to suit every schedule, body type, and level of mobility. The University of Illinois conducted a study on a group of sedentary adults and sampled their gut microbiome compositions before and after a 6-week exercise regiment consisting of 30-60 minute workouts 3x a week. These are the cardio exercises that they found had the greatest impacts on gut health.
Diet is a crucial key in any wellness goal, but especially for the gut. Probiotics, which are live healthy bacteria for your gut, can be found in many different foods or in supplement form. Fermented foods like kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and even fermented hot sauce are particularly high in probiotics. A plant-based diet of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and whole grains helps to diversify the number of bacteria in the gut while acting as a prebiotic that "feeds" probiotics.
Probiotic supplements are also available if you have stricter dietary restrictions or just aren't into the taste! On many occasions, probiotic supplements have been linked to helping reduce the symptoms of gastrointestinal diseases, support weight loss, improve cardiovascular health, and alleviate the symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression. Collagen supplements may also help to repair and strengthen the intestinal walls to help manage the symptoms associated with leaky gut syndrome and IBS.
The exercise and diet routes to a healthy gut are not exclusive, they benefit from one another! If you adopt an aerobic exercise routine, try to exercise for 30-60 minutes three times a week to begin. Remember that gut health should not come at the expense of other areas of your body. If aerobic exercise isn't practical for your joints or current health conditions, you can always go the diet-route and opt for gentle exercise like yoga or walking. No matter where you are in your gut health or fitness journey, your whole body will thank you for a little bit of mobility.