How Physical Activity Supports Digestion


What can you do to feel good right now? Get moving! Physical activity releases feel-good endorphins and dopamine, burns calories, helps to regulate the body, and promotes healthy digestion. Our bodies are designed to keep moving throughout the day. Being active consistently can also improve moods, decrease anxiety, and maintain healthy joints. The best physical activity is the one you’ll do consistently.

Can Exercise Improve the Gut Microbiome?

Exercise can improve gut health because it contributes to the diversity of the body’s microbial community. Studies have shown that exercise can help boost the production of butyrate. This fatty acid helps repair the gut lining as well as reduce inflammation. This could potentially help prevent diseases like inflammatory bowel disease/irritable bowel syndrome or insulin resistance.

Exercise reduces inflammation throughout the entire body, including the GI tract. Studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise can reduce leaky gut syndrome. (1) Exercise may even counteract some of the negative effects of a high-fat diet, but not all.

Targeted exercise therapies have been developed to treat those suffering from IBS with reported improvements in symptoms of the disorder. Exercise also promotes cognition and improved symptoms of both mood and psychological disorders among humans. Cognitive improvements have been observed among stroke patients, while symptoms of depression and schizophrenia have also been improved after aerobic exercise training. Interestingly, the improvements observed among IBS patients after exercise were linked to changes in mental health and emotion. Evidence suggests that the bacterial diversity of the gut contributes to the disordered state of GI disorders by negatively impacting GI function and the psychological state.

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The Best Kinds of Exercise for Digestion

You don’t need to become a marathon runner overnight. The best kinds of physical activity that support optimal digestion are those that you do regularly and those that offer benefits to your body without overworking or stressing it. Too much exercise can tax the digestive system. There are a handful of tried and true exercises that you can follow if you want to help keep the bacterial species and microbial environment in your gut happy. One study in women found that with at least three hours of light exercise per week, subjects had increased their levels of beneficial gut bacteria compared to sedentary subjects.

If you want to add physical activity to your regular routine, consider something that is easy to maintain and easy to start from scratch. Going for daily walks before or after meals is a great way to ease into it. Starting a daily yoga practice, even just for 10 minutes, can also have benefits. Several studies have identified yoga as a proven mode of exercise to improve symptoms of IBS and depression. Yoga is a traditional mind–body–breath discipline that includes a triad of postures, structured breathing and meditation.  A recent review identified four randomized controlled trials that examined traditional yoga practice as therapy for patients with IBS. These trials demonstrated that yoga was more effective compared with pharmacological treatment and equally effective as dietary interventions or moderate-intensity walking. Physical and mental health improvements included IBS symptom severity, gastric motility and depression. (2)

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Research continues on how exercise can make modifications to intestinal bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses, which could directly influence the response to exercise. Research should also aim to describe aspects of the lifestyle as well as possible, including diet, the level of training, and sedentary behavior.

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Although the exact causal relationship is unknown, current evidence allows for the assumption that exercise may facilitate a bidirectional relationship between the gut and brain through alterations in the microbiome. This relationship may explain why exercise can be a therapeutic factor and strategy for both psychological and GI disorders.  Although there is not a direct link between exercise and digestion, there certainly is evidence that exercise improves gut health and the gut brain relationship.

Gut microbes can boost the motivation to exercise

Exercise exerts a wide range of beneficial effects for maintaining a healthy body. An important factor stimulating the engagement in exercise is the motivating pleasure derived from prolonged physical activity, which is triggered by exercise-induced neurochemical changes in the brain. Some species of gut-dwelling bacteria activate nerves in the gut to promote the desire to exercise, according to a a recent study. (3) These findings indicate that the rewarding properties of exercise are influenced by gut-derived circuits and provide a microbiome-dependent explanation for individual variability in exercise performance.

Based on available clinical evidence, exercise can have a positive impact on the gut microbiome and vice versa. Exercising regularly is a natural fix for common disruptors of digestion and can dramatically improve your gut health. The improved gut microbiome can, in turn, influence improvements in overall health and well-being, saving you from several chronic illnesses.

(1) Is There an Exercise-Intensity Threshold Capable of Avoiding the Leaky Gut? 
(2) Meditation and yoga for irritable bowel syndrome: study protocol for a randomised clinical trial (MY-IBS study
(3) A microbiome-dependent gut–brain pathway regulates motivation for exercise

Andrew Ellis

InnoVision Health Media reports on health content that is supported by our editorial advisory board and content published in our group of peer reviewed medical journals.

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