Staying home, working at home, eating and exercising from home – this has been the new norm for most of us over the last few months, but despite the challenges, many people have made good use of the extra time in lockdown to establish new exercise routines – and that’s great news! But others might be finding that the closure of gyms and leisure centres and the breaks put on most team sports have slashed their levels of physical activity. Perhaps you feel exercise is a low priority right now, you’re just too busy juggling work and family life to commit to it or nothing’s changed and you’ve always shied away from incorporating exercise into your daily life?
Whatever your situation might be, it’s important to know that regular exercise is vitally important for your physical health and mental wellbeing, and if that isn’t motivating enough to get your body moving more, emerging research is showing that our gut and our gut microbiota (GM) - that’s the community of trillions of microbes, mostly made up of bacteria, that live within our guts – will also benefit. So, try to make the most of these long summer days and unlimited outdoor exercise and get up, get outside and get active – your gut, body and mind will thank you!
To give you a little extra incentive to get you moving, dietitian and nutrition consultant to VSL#3, Helen Bond has put the spotlight on physical activity and in this blog explains why you need to get more active for your gut health, physical health and mental wellbeing; how much exercise you should be getting; what counts as exercise and how you can make sure you’re getting enough exercise in your daily life?
We're a couch-potato nation - lack of exercise puts one in six Brits at risk
Let’s start by giving you a little more insight into the nation’s exercise habits. If you’re usual fitness routine has been abandoned in favour of ticking of more items off your daily to-do-list, you feel you’re too old, too busy or not fit enough to exercise, or simply cannot be bothered to get off the sofa, you’re not the only one. Recent statistics published by Public Health England confirms that as a nation we need to do less sitting and more sweating - around 1 in 3 (34%) of men and 1 in 2 (42%) of women are not active enough for good health. These are worrying statistics because physical inactivity is responsible for one in six UK deaths (that’s equal to smoking!) and is estimated to cost the UK £7.4 billion annually (including £0.9 billion to the NHS alone). What’s more, us Brits are around 20% less active than in the 1960s - if current trends continue, it will be 35% less active by 2030. (Ref 1)
Health reasons for making the moves this summer
Many people don’t realise that physical activity does more than just improve our fitness levels. Doing regular exercise is a sure way of whittling our waistlines and getting all of the health benefits that go with losing excess weight, and reduces our risk of getting many diseases, such as colon cancer (by 30%), breast cancer (by 20%), cardiovascular disease (by up to 35%), type 2 diabetes (by up to 40%) and dementia (by up to 30%). It’s also a wonderful antidote to stress and anxiety, helps us sleep better, and improves our mental health – reducing our risk of depression by up to 30%. (Ref 1)
[Pull out box] - Regular exercise is great for lots of aspects of our health, for example:
- Boosts mood by releasing happy hormones
- Helps us to feel better about ourself and reduces stress
- Improves our sleep
- Helps prevent or manage chronic health conditions and diseases
- Helps us to maintain a healthy weight in combination with a balanced diet
- Improves our gut microbiota diversity, inducing the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria
What about exercise and gut health?
Our understanding and appreciation of our gut and its microbe communities for health has improved hugely in recent years, and whilst we know that many elements of a modern day diet and lifestyle influence its function and composition, the impact of exercise is a fairly new area of research. So far, there have been several animal studies and now increasingly more in humans that show that exercise is beneficial for our gut health and can enrich our GM diversity (Ref 2, 3, 4, 5) – and remember that having more diversity is linked with better overall health. But more research needs to be done to fully grasp how exactly exercise benefits our gut - after all everyone’s GM is totally unique and therefore everybody’s response to exercise will be different. Maybe there’s a need for personalisation in exercise? Possibly it’s not just how much exercise you undertake, but the type of exercise and when you exercise that matters?
Why does exercise benefit our gut?
First off, being more physically active improves our bowel habits (more pooing, in simple words) by stimulating our gut muscles, helping to push and speed up the passage of food through our digestive system and beat constipation – as well as ease symptoms of other digestive problems, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Enjoying a regular fitness regime has also been shown to increase the diversity of our gut microbes and enhance the number of helpful gut bugs, like butyrate producing bacteria, which can promote repair of the gut lining and reduce inflammation. In fact, gut researchers suggest that exercise-induced changes in our GM can be brought about independent of dietary intake – meaning that it’s not just because people who exercise regularly tend to eat a healthier diet. (Ref 6)
“Remember you can’t out-exercise a bad diet – a balanced diet and lifestyle is key to good gut and overall health”
Be consistent with your exercise regime
Regular exercise will bring you the most gut health rewards and happily your GM is not fussy whatever you do. So, if you’re not a big fan of the gym, there’s no point joining a club (when they re-open!), only to give it up a month later – that won’t do your GM or health any favours in the long term! Exercise is very personal, so find out what works for you and you’ll be much more likely to stick to it. Before you know it, being more active will simply be a way of life!
Have you heard about exercise associated gut discomfort?
Despite the amazing benefits of exercise for both our body and mind, prolonged strenuous exercise can distress our gut and cause discomfort in some people – newly named ‘exercise associated gut discomfort’. (Ref 2, 6, 7) This can not only affect people’s enjoyment of doing exercise but also impair performance or subsequent recovery. The good news if you’re struggling with gut symptoms, like nausea, diarrhoea and cramps, is that nutritional training and appropriate nutrition choices can help reduce the risk of gastrointestinal troubles during exercise. Visit the freelance dietitians website at https://freelancedietitians.org for a registered sports or gastroenterology specialist dietitian who can give you tailored dietary advice.
How much exercise?
The Government recommends that adults aged 18-64 years do at least 150 minutes of moderately-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week – that means increasing your breathing rate so that you feel a little bit sweaty, but not so hard that you are unable to chat and exercise at the same time (e.g. brisk walking, dancing, gardening, or even housework and domestic chores) or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week (e.g. running, fast swimming, fast cycling, competitive sports (such as football)). And do muscle strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week (e.g. carrying heavy shopping, weight training and yoga). If you are doing any or all of that, you can pat yourself on the back, but of course, any activity is better than none, and more is better still to keep yourself healthy and happy, and your gut friendly helpers down there in decent condition.
“It’s never too late to start exercising - however long you've been inactive, and whatever your age or health status, there’s almost always some type of exercise that will be possible”
Here are my top 10 tips for getting more exercise into your daily life
- Break it up. If you’re new to exercise or out of the habit, it can seem daunting to aim for 150 minutes a week straightaway. Instead, think in 10 minute chunks and it will seem much more achievable. Before you know it, you’ll be in good enough shape to ramp up your exercise level to help you reach the recommended target.
Start gently. Beginning your new exercise routine gently is not only less strenuous on your body, but also on your gut too. Your gut health can adjust well to slow and incremental changes, but it has a much more difficult time adapting to a complete diet and exercise overhaul. So, when you decide you’re ready to start upping your exercise levels, start by increasing how often you do activity, before increasing how hard you exercise.
Know your limits. While it’s important to exercise, it’s essential to stay within the realms of your own ability. If you’re over 40 and your current exercise regime involves little more than a stroll, speak to your doctor before starting a new exercise regime to check that you’re physically fit to go.
Get an exercise buddy. Exercising with a friend is a great way to stay motivated and to socialise at the same time. And a bit of friendly rivalry with your buddy may also push you to exercise harder and more often.
Make it fun. Doing exercise is much easier to sustain if you enjoy it, so keep trying new things until you find an exercise or a way of exercising that you really enjoy. Your exercise willpower will surely dwindle if you are doing something that you hate, week in, week out.
- Find some motivation. A good way to motivate yourself to exercise when being active seems less than appealing is to sign up for a fitness event or a challenge – something to work towards! What about Saturday park runs, Cancer Research Race for Life 5k runs, the London MoonWalk or an open water swimming event.
Think outside the box. The great news is you don’t need to start training for a marathon or invest in an expensive gym membership to reap exercise benefits – you can turn a trip to the shops into your workout by ditching the car and walking there briskly, put some gusto into the housework, get your groove on shimmying around the lounge or dig for victory in the garden. If none of those appeals, you can even put together your own fitness routine at home, incorporating burpees, sit ups and squats. It’s fun, free and it’ll still keep you fit and healthy.
Me-time. Try to carve out a small amount of me-time each day to exercise and relieve daily stresses. Think of it as self-care, rather than being self-indulgent. It could be a walk, some pilates or a yoga session, a gentle run or even pumping iron – whatever helps you switch off, zone out and think about you. Your gut will love you for it, too!
Enjoy an evening walk. If daytimes are always busy, try shifting your exercise to the evening and take advantage of the longer days to go for a walk? Fresh air and the wonderful outdoors are great for de-stressing and a family walk is the perfect example of exercise as a social, bonding activity, not to mention that it’s a boost for your gut health, if tensions are running a little high during lockdown.
- Get gardening. Summer’s here, which means that there is always something to be done in the garden, so why not, reap the physical rewards? Whether it’s wedding, trimming hedges and shrubs, mowing the lawn or deadheading the roses – it all counts as physical activity. So put your back into it and if you have a vegetable box or orchard, you’ll be able to enjoy the healthy fruits of your labour too.
Don’t forget diet is just as important too
And, lastly, we cannot talk about exercise without mentioning the importance of a healthy diet – as physical activity goes hand-in-hand with eating well! Everything you eat and drink has an affect on your body when you exercise. And although it’s important to keep well hydrated and have the right snack before your start and a suitable meal afterwards to help your body recover and repair, it’s actually what you eat and drink everyday that plays the biggest part! So, it’s essential to eat a wide variety of healthy foods, including lots of minimally processed plant-based foods, as your body and your gut need the right balance in order to be nourished and to help you get the most benefits out of your exercise routine.
Make a start today
Exercising regularly, eating well and living well help you feel good, and keep your gut health and gut microbes in tip-top shape. So what are you waiting for? Make a start today, and a healthier gut and healthier you is just around the corner!
The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP, Pharmacist or other health professional if you’ve not been active for a while, you’re struggling with gut symptoms, you’re pregnant, on medication or you have a specific medical condition that means you’re immune suppressed and wanting to boost your friendly gut microbe community with VSL#3.
Public Health England. (2019) Guidance Physical Activity: Applying all our Health. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/physical-activity-applying-all-our-health/physical-activity-applying-all-our-health. Accessed April 2021.
- Clarke S.F et al. (2014) Exercise and Associated Dietary Extremes Impact on Gut Microbial Diversity. Gut 63 (12): 1913-2o.
- O'Sullivan O, Cronin O, Clarke S.F, et al. (2015) Exercise and the microbiota. Gut Microbes; 6:131–6.
Cronin O, Molloy MG, Shanahan F. (2016) Exercise, fitness, and the gut. Curr Opin Gastroenterol ;32:67–73.
- Barton W, Penney N.C, Cronin O, et al. (2018) The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level. Gut; 67: 625-633.
- Rossi M. (2019) Eat Yourself Healthy. Penguin, Random House, UK.
- Costa R.J.S, Snipe R.M.J, Kitic C.M, Gibson P.R. (2017) Systematic review: exercise‐induced gastrointestinal syndrome —implications for health and intestinal disease
Available at https://www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/apt.14157. Accessed April 2021.