The gut microbiome gets a lot of attention for its role in overall health. A healthy gut means you have better digestion and improved immunity. It could also play a role in preventing health conditions like heart disease and autoimmune conditions.
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Perhaps you’re already taking probiotics and eating more plant foods to keep your gut happy. But there’s a lesser-known — and equally important — step you should take to optimize that microbiome: Exercise.
“Exercise is one of the most powerful ways you can boost your gut microbiome,” says Dr. Lee. “It’s probably the best ‘medicine’ we have for your gut.”
Exercise improves your gut health because it:
Your digestive tract has its own rhythm that keeps things moving. When it’s too fast, you might be running to the bathroom. Too slow, and you’ve got bloating, gas, pain and nausea. Neither option is going to help you have your best day. Regular exercise allows your gut to find its perfect pace.
“Your digestive tract is a muscle, and moving your body is good for all your muscles, your gut included,” explains Dr. Lee. “When we’re physically inactive, the muscles in our gut also become less active, too. Over time, they lose their natural coordination and strength.”
During exercise, your heart pumps harder and faster to deliver extra blood and oxygen to your muscles. Some of that extra goodness also goes directly to your gut.
“Exercise improves circulation throughout your body, including to your gut and other organs,” says Dr. Lee. “When your digestive tract is better perfused (or has a good flow), it becomes stronger, healthier and better able to maintain the right balance of healthy bacteria.”
Physical activity gives you great muscle tone, and we’re not just talking about biceps and abs. When you’re in shape, your gut muscles become stronger and more efficient, too. It uses its fit muscles to expel unwanted waste more completely.
“Many people think they’re not constipated because they have regular or frequent bowel movements,” notes Dr. Lee. “But you might be going frequently because your colon isn’t emptying completely. You could be going several times to get one bowel movement out.”
Exercise makes your gut’s contractions — known as peristalsis — more powerful and more effective.
“Higher quality peristalsis means your gut can empty more effectively,” she continues. “It’s a key part of your digestive health because it moves the waste out of your body before it can disrupt your microbiome.”
Your metabolism is your body’s process of turning calories into energy. Physical activity helps you maintain or speed up this process, which helps with digestion and better balance in your gut.
“If your metabolism slows down, your body has to select which functions are more important,” explains Dr. Lee. “Your body sees digestion as a lower priority than vital organs like your heart, lungs and brain. It takes some energy away from your gut and can lead to an overgrowth of bad bacteria, bacterial translocation (passage of bacteria from the GI tract to other tissues or organs) and complications from slower motility (such as megacolon, hemorrhoids and diverticulitis).”
Getting enough quality sleep is great for your gut. But it’s often not as simple as lying down and waiting to drift off to dreamland. If you find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep, getting some exercise could be the natural remedy you need.
“Regular exercise can lead to better sleep overall and can improve some sleep disorders,” says Dr. Lee. “When you sleep, your body, including the gut, repairs itself, breaks down waste and builds up your immune system.”
The benefits of exercise for gut health are impressive. And there’s great news: You don’t always have to join a gym or follow a strenuous program to get results.
“The key to exercise is to start at your own level,” advises Dr. Lee. “If you haven’t exercised in a while, then a brisk walk may work for you. If you already work out regularly, you need to make sure you are doing something vigorous enough that gets your heart pumping.”
What type of exercise do you need to do for a healthier gut? Do any type of aerobic exercise you enjoy and that works with your schedule and fitness level.
“People hear the word ‘aerobic’ and think they have to join a class, but that’s not the case,” clarifies Dr. Lee. “Raking leaves, vacuuming the living room, mowing the grass or dancing to your favorite music can be aerobic exercise.”
How do you know if your workout is the right intensity? Look for these signs:
Ideally, you should aim for 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week. But if you can’t hit that goal, don’t give up. Any amount of activity is better than none.
“Many people get frustrated when they miss a few days of exercise,” says Dr. Lee. “But the key is to move as much as you can, no matter what that looks like.”
If you’re just starting out with exercise, watch out for injuries from overdoing it.
“Don’t do too much, too soon — this can strain muscles or hurt yourself,” warns Dr. Lee. “As long as your heart rate is up, you’re at the right intensity. Don’t push beyond your limits, or you could set yourself back.”
If you have a heart or lung condition, talk with your healthcare provider before beginning any type of exercise.
“Getting your heart rate up is usually a good thing, but it may not be safe with certain heart conditions,” cautions Dr. Lee. “Your healthcare provider can help you determine which type of exercises to do.”
No matter how you choose to move, your body — including your gut — will thank you.
“Exercise is one of the most powerful ways to improve your overall health, including your gut health,” reinforces Dr. Lee. “It’s something nearly everyone can do to feel better, and it doesn’t have to cost a thing.”