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The gut is finally garnering the spotlight it deserves after centuries of its relationship to overall health being underestimated. This is mainly because of an explosion of research related to the gut microbiome and the gut-brain connection.
“From obesity and diabetes to depression and autism, we’re learning how changes in the gut microbiome may be associated with many of the most common and most difficult to treat diseases and disorders,” explains Chicago-based gastroenterologist Andrew Moore, M.D.
As a result of the ongoing discovery of the gut’s integral part in our health, there’s more and more desire to find ways to improve it, especially when it comes to the bacteria within our gut. While bacteria often gets a bad rap, there are “good” and “bad” kinds — and having an optimal balance of good bacteria is crucial for overall gut health.
Our gut also plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy immune system, explains Benjamin Hyatt, M.D., gastroenterologist at Middlesex Digestive Health & Endoscopy Center in Acton, Massachusetts.
“The gut is filled with trillions of good microorganisms, our gut microbiota, that help with digestion as well as maintaining a healthy immune system,” he says. “Lower diversity in gut microbiome seems to be associated with chronic diseases such as autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal conditions, cardiac issues and mental health disorders. So maintaining a healthy microbiome will likely reduce the risk of these conditions.”
Luckily, exercise can benefit your gut, which can be surprising for some because we often associate exercise with heart health and overall endurance but fail to realize that it plays a key role in other areas of our bodies such as our gut.
“We’ve known for some time that people who are more physically active generally have lower rates of constipation, lower rates of diverticular disease, as well as lower rates of colon cancer,” Moore says. “We still have a long way to go in learning as to why this is the case, but the associations have been known for many years.”
Here, Hyatt and Moore share some of the most useful ways exercise can benefit your gut.
1. It can significantly reduce stress and anxiety.
It’s long been known that exercise plays a key role in reducing stress, but little has been known about how harmful chronic stress is to the gut until recent decades.
“Chronic stress is harmful to the gut because of how it affects the communication between the gut and brain, known as the ‘gut-brain axis,’” Hyatt explains. “When these signals are disrupted, conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or gastroesophageal reflux disease can develop or worsen.” Research, including one study published in the journal Gut Microbes, has shown that aerobic exercise can help maintain regulated communication along the gut-brain axis and reduce the risk of gastrointestinal distress.
2. It can help keep off excess weight.
An estimated 42.4 percent of U.S. adults fall under the category of obese, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a disease that has been linked to myriad health issues, including heart disease, stroke and even cancer. Obesity is linked to many gastrointestinal diseases, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, fatty liver disease (which can lead to cirrhosis), gallbladder disease, diverticular disease, esophageal cancer, colon polyps and colon cancer, Hyatt explains. “Regular exercise can benefit your gut by helping you maintain a healthy weight and help reduce the risk of these conditions,” he says.
3. It can help mitigate constipation.
Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal occurrences, affecting 16 percent of adults and 33 percent of adults older than 60, per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
“Exercise actually decreases colon transit time, or the amount of time it takes for stool to move through the colon, and thus can help with constipation,” Moore says. “Moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or jogging, for 30 to 45 minutes a few times per week, can be enough to help treat minor constipation.” Here’s what your bathroom habits might say about your health.
4. It can lower your risk of colon cancer.
Research has shown that physical activity can reduce your risk of various cancers, including one that has a direct impact on your gut: colon cancer. In fact, regular exercise may be able to lower the risk of developing colon cancer by as much as 40 to 50 percent, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
“The exact mechanisms of this are not yet clear, but it may be that exercise causes changes in the microbiome that have anti-inflammatory effects,” Moore says. “While there is no consensus as to what the ‘right amount’ of exercise is to reduce colon cancer, around 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day is reasonable.”