The microbiome, the mini ecosystem inside your digestive system, is a hot topic for health researchers. And a lot of that research focuses on how diet affects the bacteria in our gut. Validating the old adage “You are what you eat”.

But food is only one factor; exercise is another major way we shape our digestive health.

The first study of its kind, researchers at the National University of Ireland compared the bacteria present in three subject groups. Professional rugby players and two control groups of moderately active men close to the same ages of the rugby players accounting for all sizes, ages, and activity levels.

As expected, the athletes’ digestive health was better. They had more of a specific bacteria, Akkermansiaceae, which is associated with lower rates of obesity and metabolic diseases.They also had a wider range of bacteria working together to support their gut.

The study raised some question about how much the exercise itself was a factor.  Professional athletes tend to eat healthier diets compared to the average Joe.

However, two separate studies at other universities University of Colorado Boulder and European University of Madrid looked at the direct effects of exercise on gut flora. Colorado looked at rats that were required to exercise at different points in their lives. The study found when the rats reached a “peak plasticity” as they became adults.

But if you’re not a baby reading this blog, starting an exercise routine at any point in your life can still improve your digestion.

European University looked at humans age 18 to 45 and found that simply exercising 3-5 hours a week improved microbiota. Furthermore Bifidobacterium, which supports the immune system, was 4 times more abundant in those that were physically active.

Exercise for Digestive Health

While most people don’t consciously exercise for digestive health, moderate exercise like walking, yoga or dance are more beneficial to the gut than a rigorous aerobic workout. This is especially true if you’ve eaten within two hours before your workout. Your mom was right to keep you out of the swimming pool all those times as a kid.

The Yoga Journal has collected a series of poses that support digestive health by reducing irritation and indigestion here.

Not a fan of yoga? Go for a brisk walk, swim some laps, or dance around the room. Trust me, no one is watching… except maybe your gut flora.

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