The Benefits of Exercise for Digestive Health

Woman holding out an apple to illustrate the benefits of exercise on digestive health

Exercise has many benefits for digestive health.

We all know that exercise is good for us, but did you know that exercise might actually alter the bacterial composition of your digestive system, helping to prevent disease and maintain overall good health?

The collection of microorganisms living in the digestive system is often called the gut microbiota. Healthy gut microbiota can protect against metabolic disorders[1] while imbalances in the gut microbiota can induce obesity[2] and are linked to conditions like IBD and even autism.[1] One study suggests that “microbiota diversity may become a new biomarker or indicator of health.”[1] 

Many factors can affect our gut microbiota, including diet, antibiotic use, weight gain or loss, and hypertension.[3] To add to the list, recent research shows that exercise has a positive effect on the diversity of our gut bacterial composition.

Exercise for digestive health

Exercise has long been known to help digestion, with research showing that it results in protective effects on the GI tract itself. In fact, there is evidence that humans and animals who exercise are at a reduced risk of colon cancer, regardless of the amount or type of exercise. Exercise can also reduce the risk of diverticular disease and constipation.[4]

It wasn’t until recently that researchers discovered the link between exercise and the bacterial composition of the gut. Laboratory studies in rodents provide initial evidence that exercise can alter the bacterial composition of the digestive system.[2,3,4]

In one study, these results were seen in all rats, regardless of whether they were obese, non-obese, or hypertensive.[3] Another study found that exercise altered the gut microbiota in mice fed both low-fat and high-fat diets, with the balance of bacteria also depending on the distance run by the mice.

Athletes have more diverse gut microbiota

A study published in 2014 investigated the microbiota composition in human athletes compared to controls. The researchers found that the gut microbiota of rugby athletes was more diverse than non-athlete controls, and that the athletes had higher proportions of most types of microorganisms than the controls. These differences were also linked to improved metabolic and inflammatory markers, both measures of better health. The authors noted that diet plays an important role in the modulation of gut microbiota.[1]

What can you do to improve your microbiota diversity?

Researchers suggest that exercise might be important to add as a therapeutic factor for maintaining a healthy digestive tract.[3] Try to do some type of moderate physical activity for at least thirty minutes five times a week. Other ways to maintain a healthy gut microbiota include eating a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and taking a probiotic supplement.

Share your experience with exercise and your digestive health

How do you incorporate exercise into your daily routine? Have you found a difference in your health following regular exercise? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Originally published in July 2014, this post has been updated.

[1] Gut. 2014 Jun;0:1-8.

[2] PLoS One. 2014 Mar 26;9(3):e92193.

[3] BMC Genomics. 2014 Jun 21;15:511.

[4] Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2008 Feb;72(2):572-6. 

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UHN Staff

University Health News is produced by the award-winning editors and authors of Belvoir Media Group’s Health & Wellness Division. Headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with editorial offices in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, … Read More

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