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5 Science-Backed Benefits of Exercise on Your Digestion

We all know what we eat significantly affects the health of our digestion but what many don’t realize, is what’s also important is how much we move. Exercise not only helps you digest food better, it also changes the composition of your gut microbiome – making you healthier from the inside out.

Your gut microbiome are the 100 trillion microbes living in your gastrointestinal tract and include bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and more. When you exercise, certain microbes are favored and become stronger. The interesting thing about the effects of exercise on your gut, is it favors disease-fighting, weight loss promoting microbes. This means not only do you get the immediate benefits of exercise like calorie burning and detoxification that comes with sweating – you also get the benefits of a healthier digestive system, long after you finish working out.

The lasting benefits exercise has on the gastrointestinal tract and its microbiome help support a healthy immune system, promote weight loss, and fight disease. With 80 percent of your immune system living in your gastrointestinal tract, it’s no surprise that keeping it healthy with exercise would offer you these five awesome digestive health benefits.

1. Reduces risk of colon cancer

Colon cancer kills about 50,000 people in America each year. It’s a cancer of particular concern because it can be largely asymptomatic until it’s too late. Fortunately, exercise has been found to reduce a person’s chances of developing colon cancer. A 2011 study found strong evidence that regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing colon cancer overall.

While exercise has been shown to reduce one’s risk of colon cancer, we all need to follow the recommended screening guidelines to best reduce our risk of developing this cancer. I encourage you to read the page I’ve created about why colonoscopy is the gold standard of exams used to screen for colon cancer to learn more about how colon cancer can be easily prevented.

2. Improves quality of life in those with irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition I see regularly in my practice. Unfortunately, it’s also a problem that is on the rise. The good news is, exercise has been found to reduce the symptoms and improve the quality of life of patients with irritable bowel syndrome.

A recent study found exercise not only improved digestive related symptoms in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, but it also improved their overall quality of life. Physical activity appears to be an effective way to reduce symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and fatigue in those with irritable bowel syndrome.

3. Relieves constipation

Exercising helps the food you’re digesting move through the intestines better, especially in patients with IBS. A study on patients with IBS found that those who exercised regularly had a significant reduction in constipation. In another study, researchers found that constipation was associated with a lack of physical activity in teenagers.

While you might not feel like exercising when you’re constipated, it could be exactly what you need. Try moving around and stretching more if you become constipated easily.

4. Prevents gallstones

Gallstones occur when deposits of bile form in your gallbladder. These painful stones can result in acute pancreatitis, which usually results in hospitalization. Research has found exercise to be effective in preventing gallstones from forming.

This is believed to be because exercise lowers insulin and triglyceride levels, while raising good cholesterol. Also, exercise reduces bile stasis, which is when bile can’t move thus causing stones. A study of 25,639 volunteers found that those who participated in the highest level of physical activity had a 70 percent decreased risk of developing gallstones.

5. Improves your gut microbiome composition

A 2017 study found that exercise affects the types of predominant bacteria in your gut, independent of other factors, like your diet. This was found to be true in both lean and obese adults who had sedentary lifestyles. This means you can change your gut microbiome composition with exercise, which is good news for anyone trying to be more healthy!

First, a baseline sample of their gut microbiome was taken. Then they exercised for six weeks and had another sample taken. Researchers found a decrease in microbes associated with inflammatory disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. If you need another reason to exercise, that’s it! The fact that exercise is able to change your gut microbiome that dramatically and that quickly is great news.

Interestingly, the study found that as soon as those individuals stopped exercising, their microbiome returned to how it was initially. That means exercise needs to be a lifestyle change, not something you do every now and them.

Keep in mind, a little exercise is better than nothing. I believe it’s better to make it a habit and do it regularly no matter how much or little you do. Some days you might only feel like going for a walk, but that’s better than nothing.

5 Ways to Improve Your Digestive Health

Other things you can do to improve your digestive health along with exercising, include:

  1. Eat a nutrient-dense diet with lots of diverse foods.
  2. Eat prebiotic-rich foods like garlic, onion, and leeks
  3. Eat probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut and kimchi
  4. Drink plenty of water
  5. Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrate intake.

Your gut health is the foundation of your overall health. When you incorporate these factors into your life as much as possible, you support your body from the inside out. Exercising goes beyond looking great, it also triggers mechanisms within your gastrointestinal tract that help keep you healthy, more easily.

Remember, there can be too much of a good thing. Exercising too aggressively can have the opposite of your desired effect. Especially if you have gastrointestinal issues, consider trying more gentle exercises such as yoga, biking, or even strength training.

Sedentary lifestyles and gastrointestinal issues can become a vicious cycle. Without sufficient exercise you can develop gut issues, but if you have gut problems the last thing you’ll feel like doing is working out. I totally get it and am here to help. If you’re in need of a gastroenterologist in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with experience in complex digestive health issues, you can request an appointment here or call 972-867-0019. There’s no need to struggle alone, let’s get your health back on track today.

In health,

Arshad Malik, MD