Here’s yet another important benefit of staying active. If exercise came in pill form we’d all be chomping down handfuls every day, because the list of health benefits that come from staying active is nothing short of incredible. And every time you think you’ve got a handle on what all those benefits are, another one pops up – like better gut health.
We had no idea that exercise could improve your gut health, so we were only too delighted to get some expert advice on the topic from Jo Travers, a dietitian working with Love Your Gut Week.
Why is your gut health important?
We have loads and loads of bacteria that live on us and in us and do things to keep us healthy – and 99% of those bacteria are found in our gut.
There are lots of jobs that these bacteria do. One of them is digesting things that our digestive system can’t handle and also freeing nutrients in a more efficient way, like isolating short-chain fatty acids and breaking down other fatty acids into short-chain fatty acids, which can help with inflammation.
Bacteria also help our immune system, training it so it doesn’t overreact or underreact to challenges.
How does exercise affect your gut health?
Lots of things affect what bacteria lives in our gut. Diet is a major one.
If you eat fast food every day, the range of bacteria that live in your gut will be quite slim. If you eat lots of vegetables and plant foods, you get a much wider variety of bacteria that live in your gut. You can also take probiotics, which give you big doses of helpful bacteria for your gut.
Weight is also quite important. People who are overweight or obese tend to have less of a range of bacteria or not such beneficial bacteria as people who are lean. This is obviously linked to exercise because it can help manage weight.
Exercise has also been shown to increase particularly useful strains of bacteria like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, which help with things like isolating those short-chain fatty acids and inflammation. People who don’t move at all don’t have those beneficial gut bacteria that help with inflammation, so they tend to be diagnosed with more things like diabetes and inflammatory conditions like heart disease.
Exercise is also good for constipation. When people come to see me and say they are chronically constipated, the first things I check are if they are properly hydrated and whether they are doing enough exercise.
If you don’t walk anywhere or do any exercise at all, that can decrease gut motility. Regardless of what bacteria are in your gut, being active can keep things moving and stimulate peristalsis [the action of pushing food through your body].
How much exercise do you need to do? Is there any kind of exercise that is better?
There’s been quite a lot of research into it, and it seems that as long as you’re continuing to exercise, you can maintain the beneficial changes in your gut bacteria, but as soon as you stop the bacterial profile of your gut reverts back to whatever it was before you started.
What’s needed to maintain those changes seems to vary between people so it’s difficult to say how much you need to do. There does seem to be a more beneficial change from endurance sports, but any kind of exercise is better than none.
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