The Surprising Ways Exercise Affects Gut Health

Including expert insight on the best types of exercise for digestion.

By: Dominique Michelle Astorino

You’re likely familiar with the term “gut feeling” or “gut instinct” — and you’ve probably felt it yourself! But what is it about the gut that tells us so much? Let’s look at the physical components of the gut — the digestive system — and its role in your health. 

A refresher: The gut comprises every organ (and accessory organ) involved in the consumption, processing, and expulsion of food.

According to physicians and recent research, the gut has a lot more power than just processing food, however. Today we’re diving into the gut — what gut health actually is — and how exercise impacts the system to provide numerous benefits.

The Connection Between Exercise and Gut Health 

Beyond the organs in this system, the gut also comprises the microbiome — a unique set of bacteria (microbiota) that is different to each individual. You have a distinct microbiome that is completely unique to you!

This microbiome within the gut, as mentioned, is being uncovered more and more in the medical world. The idea of the gut-brain axis (connection between your microbiome and your brain/central nervous system) leads researchers to believe that not only does this set of microbiota manage our digestion, but our mood, mind, and overall health, too.

Here’s the cool part: exercise positively affects the gut and your digestive system as a whole. It’s also been shown that the inverse is true and that a sedentary lifestyle can lead to bad digestion

Surprising Ways Exercise Affects Digestion 

What’s pretty amazing about all this is that our actions and lifestyle can directly impact this intricate and complex system — we have more control over our health than we think! To get a little more insight, we also consulted Blanca Lizaola-Mayo, MD, a board-certified Internal Medicine physician, post CCT Fellow in Gastroenterology and Transplant Hepatology, and co-founder of SOS Hydration electrolyte replacement drinks. “Exercise, in general, is good for the body, [but] specifically it provides many benefits to the gut,” said Dr. Lizaola-Mayo. “It aids food digestion, improves motility (avoiding constipation), and is involved in the equilibrium of the gut microbiota.”

“Exercise also plays an important role in the gut’s mucosal lining, which absorbs and maintains the bacteria inside its lumen, decreases the risk for atherosclerotic disease, which can potentially compromise the gut’s blood supply (ischemic colitis),” explains Dr. Lizaola-Mayo.

There are several studies that corroborate what Dr. Lizaola-Mayo tells us, citing that exercise provides “numerous benefits to human health.” An article published in the medical journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity in 2017 shared that exercise improves the microbiome, which “improves health status.” So we know it changes things in the gut, but HOW is less clear — and remains to be unveiled through more research.

The Best Exercises For Gut Health 

The best type of exercise for gut health is regular exercise — consistency matters more than the specific style! The more you’re moving your body and making movement a regular part of your lifestyle, the better off your gut will be. 

But are there any research-backed types of exercises for gut health? According to Dr. Lizaola-Mayo, aerobic exercise and stretching can be great options. 

Balance is key, including balancing your workout routine with low impact workouts — consider Pilates, weight training, yoga, and walking. Yoga and walking, specifically, have been studied for their effectiveness for patients with IBS. To get started with some low impact workouts, browse the FitOn low impact category to get started. 

And don’t forget your warmups and cooldowns! “Stretching can promote digestion and reduce bloating,” says Dr. Lizaola-Mayo.

Try adding some deep breathing and meditation into your fitness routine too as finding ways to distress is a must when it comes to supporting digestion. 

If you do choose HIIT — which is great in short bursts! — hydration is key for gut health, explains Dr. Lizaola-Mayo. “During exercise, we lose a lot of water through sweat, breathing, and temperature regulation, which reduce the blood volume,” she says .“To help aid in hydration and overall gut health, drinking an oral rehydration solution will help you replace the water and electrolytes that you are losing, increasing the blood volume, which will provide more oxygen and nutrients to the gut.”

Nutrition & Gut Health 

Speaking of nutrients… you can double down on your digestive health by also adding in a gut-healthy diet. Think: whole grains, leafy greens, fresh fruit, lots of fiber. The combination of healthy eating and exercise can have a significant impact on digestion, and the gut as a whole. It definitely can’t hurt to add in more whole foods while you’re stepping up your fitness, too.

RELATED: The Best Foods For a Healthier Gut According to an RD

Final Thoughts

We all know exercise is a cornerstone of a healthy body and life. Knowing now that it can improve your digestion and gut health (which may improve your mental health!), support overall wellness, and keep you regular… that’s all the more reason to get started. Now choose your adventure: which workout will you try today?