As a dietitian and nutrition consultant to VSL#3 – a highly concentrated poly-biotic with 450 billion bacteria in every sachet – I’m often asked if getting more active will improve gut health, physical health and mental wellbeing. In short, the answer is an emphatic YES.
Staying home, working at home, eating and exercising at home – this has been the new norm for most of us over the last few months, but despite the challenges, many people have made good use of the extra time in lockdown to establish new exercise routines. Whatever your situation might be, it’s absolutely true that regular exercise is vitally important for your physical health and mental wellbeing.
If that isn’t motivating enough to get your body moving more, emerging research is showing that our gut and our gut microbiota (GM) - that’s the community of trillions of microbes, mostly made up of bacteria, that live within our guts – will also benefit. So, try to make the most of these long summer days and unlimited outdoor exercise and get up, get outside, and get active – your gut, body and mind will thank you!
What’s the link between exercise and gut health?
Our understanding and appreciation of our gut and its microbial communities for health has improved hugely in recent years, and whilst we know that many elements of a modern day diet and lifestyle influence its function and composition, the impact of exercise is a fairly new area of research. So far, there have been several animal studies and now increasingly more in humans that show that exercise is beneficial for our gut health and can enrich our GM diversity (Ref 1, 2, 3, 4) – and remember that having more diversity is linked with better overall health.
Still, more research needs to be done to fully grasp how exactly exercise benefits our gut - after all everyone’s GM is totally unique and therefore everybody’s response to exercise will be different. Maybe there’s a need for personalisation in exercise? Possibly it’s not just how much exercise you undertake, but the type of exercise and when you exercise that matters for maximum impact?
Why does exercise benefit our gut?
First off, being more physically active improves our bowel habits (more pooping, in simple words) by stimulating our gut muscles, helping to push and speed up the passage of food through our digestive system and beat constipation – as well as ease symptoms of other digestive problems, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Enjoying a regular fitness routine has also been shown to increase the diversity of our gut microbes and enhance the number of helpful microbial species, like butyrate producing bacteria, which can promote repair of the gut lining and reduce inflammation.
In fact, gut researchers suggest that exercise-induced changes in our GM can be brought about independent of dietary intake – meaning that it’s not just because people who exercise regularly tend to eat a healthier diet (5). Although, my advice as a dietitian is that physical activity should always go hand-in-hand with eating well!
Build an exercise routine that works for you
Regular exercise will bring you the most gut health rewards and happily your GM is not fussy whatever you do. So, if you’re not a big fan of the gym, there’s no point joining a club (when they re-open!), only to give it up a month later – that won’t do your GM or health any favours in the long term! Any exercise is good for you to keep yourself healthy and happy, and your gut friendly helpers down there in decent condition.
Exercise is very personal, so find out what works for you and you’ll be much more likely to stick to it. Before you know it, being more active will simply be a way of life and you’ll be hitting the activity target of 150 minutes of moderately intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (or a combination of both) throughout the week.
Despite the amazing benefits of exercise for both our body and mind, prolonged strenuous exercise can distress our gut and cause discomfort in some people – newly named ‘exercise associated gut discomfort’ (1, 5, 6). This can not only affect people’s enjoyment of doing exercise but also impair performance or subsequent recovery. The good news if you’re struggling with gut symptoms like nausea, diarrhoea, and cramps, is that nutritional training and appropriate nutrition choices can help reduce the risk of gastrointestinal troubles during exercise, so take advice from a sports nutrition specialist.
Nourishing Your Body
And, lastly, we cannot talk about exercise without mentioning the importance of a healthy diet. Everything you eat and drink has an effect on your body when you exercise. And although it’s important to keep well hydrated and have the right snack before your start and a suitable meal afterwards to help your body recover and repair, it’s actually what you eat and drink every day that plays the biggest part! So, it’s essential to eat a wide variety of healthy foods, including lots of plant-based foods, as your body and your gut need the right balance in order to be nourished and to help you get the most benefits out of your exercise routine.
Exercising regularly, eating well, living well – together with a helping hand from VSL#3 will help you feel good, and keep your gut health and gut microbes in tip-top shape. Make a start today, and a healthier gut (and healthier you) are just around the corner!
Find out more VSL#3 over on their website. Use code BALANCE20 for 20% off orders until December 2020.
- Clarke S.F et al. (2014) Exercise and Associated Dietary Extremes Impact on Gut Microbial Diversity. Gut 63 (12): 1913-2o.
- O'Sullivan O, Cronin O, Clarke S.F, et al. (2015) Exercise and the microbiota. Gut Microbes; 6:131–6.
- Cronin O, Molloy MG, Shanahan F. (2016) Exercise, fitness, and the gut. Curr Opin Gastroenterol ;32:67–73.
- Barton W, Penney N.C, Cronin O, et al. (2018) The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level. Gut; 67: 625-633.
- Rossi M. (2019) Eat Yourself Healthy. Penguin, Random House, UK.
- Costa R.J.S, Snipe R.M.J, Kitic C.M, Gibson P.R. (2017) Systematic review: exercise‐induced gastrointestinal syndrome —implications for health and intestinal disease. Available at https://www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/apt.14157. Accessed June 2020.