A Fit Microbiome: Movements that Have a Positive Impact on Your Gut
Science has shown time and again that physical activity is good for both the body and mind. What you may not know is that movement also impacts the health of your gut microbiome.1
Although we’re just beginning to understand this gut-exercise connection, some research shows that certain types of movement seem to contribute to gut health more than others.2 It may surprise you that high-intensity endurance training may not be the best choice for everyone when it comes to microbiome fitness.
Exercises May Not be Equal
Based on the limited studies we have relating exercise to the microbiome, not every type of fitness activity may be equally beneficial. High-intensity endurance training draws blood flow toward major muscle groups, limiting nutrient and oxygen supply around the digestive system. As a result, high-intensity training impacts the health of intestine walls and negatively alters microbiome diversity, at least temporarily.234
For these reasons, strenuous endurance training does not seem to support a balanced gut microbiome, especially if you already have some trouble with maintaining a healthy digestive balance.3
In contrast, low to moderate-intensity exercise, especially aerobic training, has been shown to help maintain digestive health, increasing the diversity and population of a healthy microbiome.25
Moderate physical activity and exercise may also speed up the transit time of stool without stressing your intestines. This supports digestive regularity which helps sweep away potential microscopic invaders.3
Examples of Moderate Exercise
So, what does moderate training look like? The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends 2.5-5 hours weekly of moderate-intensity activity.6 During moderate-intensity exercise, you’re getting your heart rate 50-60% higher than it would be if you were sitting on the couch.7
This level of intensity can be measured with a heart rate monitor like those found on a fitness watch. Some examples of moderate-intensity exercises include:
Walking/Light Jogging: Depending on your previous fitness level, brisk walking to light jogging can be a good choice. In fact, several research studies that resulted in microbiome improvements used brisk walking on their study subjects.
Bike Riding: Bicycling with light effort at 10-14 mph can raise the heart rate and get your blood flowing.
Swimming or Water Aerobics: This is a great activity for anyone looking for minimal impact on the joints while getting a full-body workout.
Yoga: Certain yoga poses are especially beneficial when it comes to the digestive system. Not only does yoga provide movement, but these positions add gentle pressure and twists to your intestines, encouraging gas and stool to move. Try child’s pose, supine twist, wind-relieving pose, and crescent twist.
As Fitness Improves, So Might Your Microbiome
Scientists are also learning that it may be possible to build up to high-intensity endurance training without stress on the microbiome. The research indicates that elite athletes often have more diversity in their microbiome than the average person.3,8
It’s not clear yet if this is related to diet, movement, or a combination of factors. Regardless, these bacteria seem to have a protective effect on the gut, releasing short-chain fatty acids that help maintain a healthy balance, potentially contributing to athletic performance.2
And, as regular moderate physical activity improves the microbiome, the gut may be able to tolerate higher intensity training.
No doubt about it, we still have a lot to learn about the relationship between exercise and the microbiome. It’s just one more branch of scientific evidence that links regular physical activity to important health benefits.
Warburton, Darren E. R., Crystal Whitney Nicol, and Shannon S. D. Bredin. 2006. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal de l’Association Medicale Canadienne 174 (6): 801–9.
Monda, Vincenzo, Ines Villano, Antonietta Messina, Anna Valenzano, Teresa Esposito, Fiorenzo Moscatelli, Andrea Viggiano, et al. 2017. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2017 (March): 3831972.
Peters, H. P., W. R. De Vries, G. P. Vanberge-Henegouwen, and L. M. Akkermans. 2001 Gut 48 (3): 435–39.
Munukka, Eveliina, Juha P. Ahtiainen, Pere Puigbó, Sirpa Jalkanen, Katja Pahkala, Anniina Keskitalo, Urho M. Kujala, et al. 2018. Frontiers in Microbiology 9 (October): 2323.
Allen JM, Mailing LJ, Niemiro GM, Moore R, Cook MD, White BA, et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc. (2018) 50:747–57. doi: 10.1249/MSS.000000000000
Physical activity guidelines for Americans. Accessed May 18, 2022. health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity.
Bone, Muscle, and Joint Team. 2020. [Moderate exercise]. Cleveland Clinic (blog). October 23, 2020. health.clevelandclinic.org.
Petersen, Lauren M., Eddy J. Bautista, Hoan Nguyen, Blake M. Hanson, Lei Chen, Sai H. Lek, Erica Sodergren, and George M. Weinstock. 2017. Microbiome 5 (1): 98.