Springing Into Action: Movement to Boost Your Gut Health

man running in forest sunrise

When it comes to our gut health, many of us think that popping probiotics would be enough and call it a day. Yet, physical activity, along with food and supplements, can have a powerful impact on the healthy functioning of our gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Read on for a digest of the benefits; then start moving!  

Aerobic activity helps diversify the microbiome 

A healthy gut features a variety of beneficial microorganisms. In fact, according to a recent study, more microbial richness correlates with a higher level of physical fitness.1 So perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that elite athletes have more diverse microbiomes, says a recent article in Frontiers in Nutrition.2

Even if you’re not fit, though, take heart. Multiple studies have shown that moving more can increase the amount of beneficial activity carried out by microorganisms in your gut. Among the research that has attested to this, one study looked at men with insulin resistance.3 The results showed that both sprint interval and moderate-intensity training reduced inflammation and increased the strength and number of healthy gut bacteria. 

Another study, of healthy elderly women, compared aerobic activity (including brisk walking) to strength training regimens.4 The data showed that aerobic exercise had a more positive impact on gut microbiota. Be aware that when these female subjects stopped exercising, their guts reverted to baseline, revealing the importance of sticking to a movement routine for sustained gut health.

Movement improves gut motility

As a 2014 South Korean study of the impact of aerobic exercise shows, moving your body helps improve gut motility.5 In plain English, this means it helps speed up the movement of food and waste through your GI tract. The better the rate, the more water your stool retains, making it easier to pass. The result: less or zero constipation. Plus, when stool moves more efficiently, any pathogens within it have less time to penetrate the GI tract. The result: potentially lower risks of colon cancer, diverticulosis, and inflammatory bowel disease. 

Exercise boosts relaxation and digestion

Gentler forms of exercise, like yoga and walking, help bring on relaxation—which improves digestion. Here’s why: When we’re stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is dominant. In this state known as “fight or flight,” our bodies focus on circulating blood to our extremities so we can run away from threats. 

Unfortunately, as a result, less blood flows to our gut, making food harder to digest.

On the other hand, when we’re relaxed, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over. Referred to as “rest and digest,” this mode allows us to lower our defenses and focus on replenishing our energy and digesting our food. Sure enough, studies from 2016 and 2015 both showed how taking up yoga—a relaxing form of exercise—improved irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.6,7 The 2016 study also demonstrated similar positive effects from walking.

For this reason, use caution with intense endurance sports. Marathons, for instance, could have a negative impact on gut health without proper fueling and recovery. Since sustained intense activity is a stressor, it activates our sympathetic nervous system, reducing blood flow to our GI tract and slowing down digestion. This is the body’s way of focusing on exercise and deferring the need to relieve yourself while you’re in motion. Over time, without proper care, this can lead to symptoms, like bloating, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain. So if you’re a long distance runner, make sure you stay hydrated and give your body plenty of time to rest between runs.

A regimen to benefit your gut

Even if you start small, just get moving. Fortunately, low-impact exercises, like yoga or walking, should improve your digestion, help protect your gut, and reduce constipation. Then, to boost the diversity of your microbiome and bolster your gut health, incorporate aerobic exercises into your routine. Choose a plan based on your fitness level and preferences; however, the following can serve as a foundation.

  • Aerobic Movement: Devote at least 150 minutes per week to moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes per week of intense aerobic exercise. Whichever activities you choose, make sure they elevate your heart rate (it should be challenging to talk while you’re working out). To encourage you to stick with your new routine, pick a pursuit you enjoy. Try swimming, running, biking, Zumba class, even ballroom dancing.

  • Gentle, low-impact activity: For at least 15 minutes a few times a week, include yoga poses. Try waking up a bit earlier so you can stretch and relax with the sunrise. While you focus on your breath, flow through different poses (called asanas). Beginners can start with more basic positions, like cat-cow, downward dog, and cobra. Segue to a close by lying on your back, with your legs straight up the wall. Then finish in child’s pose. Before you rise, take several restorative deep breaths. 


1 Estaki, M., Pitcher, J., et al. (2016). [Cardiorespiratory fitness and microbial diversity]. Microbiome. PubMed. 

2 Clauss, M., Gerard, P., et al. (2021). [Exercise and gut microbiome in health]. Frontiers in Nutrition. frontiersin.org.

3 Motiani, K.K., Collado, M.C., et al. (2020). [Exercise training and gut microbiota profile]. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. PubMed.

4 Morita, E., Yokoyama, H., et al. (2019). [Aerobic exercise training and intestinal bacteroides]. Nutrients. PubMed. 

5 Kim, Y.S., Song, B.K., et al. (2014). [Aerobic exercise and gastrointestinal motility]. World Journal of Gastroenterology. PubMed Central.

6 Shahabi, L., Naliboff, B.D., et al. (2016). [Evaluation of therapeutic yoga and walking and digestion]. Psychology, Health, and Medicine. PubMed.

7 Sharma, P., Poojary, G., et al. (2015). [Yoga-based therapy and digestion]. International Journal of Yoga Therapy. PubMed. 

  • Monda, V, Villano, I., et al. (2017). [Exercise and gut microbiota]. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. PubMed Central. 

  • Davidson, K. (2021). “Can Yoga Help Aid Digestion? 9 Poses to Try.” Nutrition, healthline.com.

  • Fulghum Bruce, D. (2022). [Exercise and constipation]. Reference, WebMD.com.