Exercise and Digestion

How Exercise Helps Digestion

6/21/20244 min read

We all know the importance of exercise and movement for our health and well-being but do you know of the benefits of exercise for improving and keeping your digestion optimal? Read on to learn what exercise can do for your gut health.

Improves peristalsis and gut motility

Peristalsis is the movement involving contractions of the smooth muscle of your gastrointestinal tract which includes the oesophagus, stomach and intestines. These automatic contractions act in a wave like manner pushing food and waste along the digestive system towards the exit of the rectum.

So how does exercise help peristalsis and gut motility? If there is a dysfunction of peristalsis resulting in hypomotility or slow movement of contents through the gut, you may experience trapped gas, bloating and constipation. A sedentary lifestyle may be a potential contributor to this. Exercise can help the development of stronger muscles in the GI tract, which help to improve peristalsis and movement of waste along the digestive system. When we have sluggish digestion and waste sits for too long in the bowels, where water continues to be absorbed, this can result in dry stools, making the stool more painful and difficult to pass. Improving peristalsis can help to prevent this.

Reduces stress

Most of you probably know that stress can upset digestion and aggravate any existing issues, like IBS for example. Exercise has been shown to mitigate stress by reducing stress hormones, such as cortisol. High levels of cortisol can cause digestive problems such as intestinal hyperpermeability (sometimes known as ‘leaky gut’), reduced absorption of nutrients and abdominal pain and discomfort. Exercise also produces endorphins, referred to as feel good hormones, which can aid mental well-being, further reducing stress.

Additionally, we often have a better night’s sleep when we are less stressed
and good sleep is also vital for optimal digestion.

Improves gut microbiome composition

When we think of improving our gut microbiome we tend to focus on diet and supplementing with probiotics. But research suggests that exercise may also improve the diversity of our microbiome and improve particular strains which play an important role in good health. Having a diverse microbiome greatly benefits our digestion as well as other areas of health such as our immunity, metabolism and brain function.

It is important to note that one study also found that when stopping exercise the individuals microbiome tended to return to what it was before starting exercise. This may stress the importance of making exercise a regular and consistent component of our lives.

Reduces risk of colon cancer

Australia has one of the highest incidences of colon cancer in the world and it is the second leading cause of death from cancer in Australia after lung cancer. There isn’t much difference between the ratio of males and females being diagnosed, with males only slightly more. Also, the incidence of young-onset bowel cancer is on the rise.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, the evidence for physical activity reducing the risk of colon cancer is strong. The reason this may be is because exercise reduces body fat, and thereby reduces body inflammation and insulin resistance, both of which have been shown to have a link to colon cancer. Though evidence is limited, it is also hypothesised that risk may be reduced because exercise improves transit time through the GI tract, improving constipation and reducing the time waste sits in the colon.

While the positive impacts of exercise for helping keep your bowels moving and keeping your digestion healthy have been discussed, it is important to note that for some people, endurance type exercise, like marathons, may have a negative impact on their digestion, though often of a temporary nature. This is probably truer if you already have gut issues.

The reason for this may be because endurance exercise activates the stress response in the body, through engaging the sympathetic nervous system, and switching off the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest state. When this happens blood is directed away from the intestines to the periphery. This may affect microbiome diversity, cause hyperpermeability, inflammation and result in digestive discomforts like nausea, diarrhoea and heartburn.

So find exercise that agrees with your body and that you enjoy and avoid overdoing it if you feel it affects your digestion. Even if you are someone that doesn’t feel motivated by the thought of going to the gym or doing exercise, a decent brisk walk that raises your heart rate each day can be beneficial for both your digestion and overall health. The important thing is to get moving and spend less time sitting and doing nothing at all!


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Exercise and Digestion
Exercise and Digestion