Exercise and Gut Health

The human microbiome is a diverse and beautiful thing, with roughly 100 trillion bacteria known to be living in the human gut. The "second brain" or "forgotten organ" has become better understood in recent years, as scientists discover how the gut supports metabolism, immune system function, and mental health among other things. While nutrition and genetic factors have the biggest influence on gut health, links between physical activity and gut flora are getting more attention all the time.

Connections between gut health and physical exercise became widely recognised in 2014 when researchers discovered a group of elite athletes with healthier guts than most. By comparing the gut flora levels of the national Irish rugby team to a group of sedentary men, it became clear that it's possible to alter our bacterial structure through exercise. According to the study, "The results provide evidence for a beneficial impact of exercise on gut microbiota diversity but also indicate that the relationship is complex and is related to accompanying dietary extremes."

Not only did the rugby players' intestinal tracts host a greater variety of germs than the other men, they also harboured larger numbers of a particular bacterium, called Akkermansiaceae, that has been linked with a decreased risk for obesity and systemic inflammation. Even though the men were exercising intensely, healthy gut flora levels helped to reduce inflammation and improve physical recovery time. According to Dr. Shanahan, these findings “draw attention to the possibility that exercise may have a beneficial effect on the microbiota."

Other studies have published similar results, including a recent study from the European University of Madrid that looked at a group of non-professional fitness enthusiasts. Researchers looked at 104 men and women aged between 18 and 45, with subjects divided into those who were sedentary and those who exercised three to five hours a week. “Our main goal was to see if exercising regularly, but not professionally, was enough to see changes in the microbiota,” says Mar Larrosa Perez, Ph.D., who led the research team. The findings included a four-fold increase in bifidobacterium, which boosts immune system function and improves overall health.

If you really want to improve the health of your gut, it's important to start exercising at an early age. A study published in 'Immunology and Cell Biology' showed how exercise in the early years helps to create an environment with better balance between the micro-organisms in your intestines. Because these bacteria start to colonise the intestinal tract shortly after you're born, early physical activity is key to establishing a healthy microbial community. Despite the importance of early intervention, however, it's never too late to improve your gut flora. Given the right mix of nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction, your body can regulate the balance of bacteria that is essential for a long and healthy life.

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