As good as it may feel in the moment to lounge on the couch and watch Netflix all day, it's no surprise at this point that a constantly sedentary lifestyle is one of the worst things you can do for your long-term health. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and more are all linked to a lack of exercise, while regularly working out can improve bone density, lower your risk for some cancers and increase your odds of living longer. Increasingly, research is showing one additional key benefit of regular exercise: better gut health.

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Exercise isn't the only piece of the digestive health puzzle, of course; eating a varied and balanced diet, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, drinking enough water and incorporating a daily probiotic supplement into your routine are all important as well. However, it's becoming clear that a lack of exercise can mean poorer gut health--but why and how does exercise affect your digestive tract?

The Role of Good Bacteria in a Healthy Gut

Let's back up for a second. Before we get to how exercise improves gut health, let's take a look at what it means to have a healthy gut. Inside your digestive tract, there's a population of trillions (yes, with a T!) of bacteria. Also known as your gut microbiome, these bacterial populations have a huge role to play in a number of key bodily processes, from immune system function to oral health to, yes, digestion. Because your gut microbiome is such a tremendous part of your digestive tract, it's safe to say that gut health and gut microbiome health are one and the same. So what makes for a healthy gut microbiome? A well-functioning microbiome has a diverse population of many different strains of beneficial bacteria. In contrast, when the number of bad bacteria starts to outweigh the good strains, a condition known as gut dysbiosis can develop; a gut microbiome with such an imbalance can lead to a wide range of negative health symptoms (such as constipation, bloating, nausea, headache, fatigue, anxiety and much more) and even disease. In other words, it's critical that your digestive tract hosts a robust and diverse population of good bacteria strains--and there are several key ways that you can promote this balance.

The Evidence That Regular Exercise Can Transform the Composition of Your Gut Microbiome

We've understood for a while that eating certain foods that naturally has probiotics (such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi) and taking probiotic supplements can help support a healthy and balanced gut microbiome. Recently, however, new research has emerged that confirms what many have long suspected: that exercise can play a key role in regulating the microbial composition of the gut, too. In other words, scientists are finding extensive evidence that getting moving can keep everything moving normally in your gut (if you catch our drift). One study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois took a look at how exercise effected the gut microbiomes of previously sedentary adults. While the 32 study participants varied according to weight (18 were at a healthy weight while 14 were obese), none of them maintained regular exercise routines. All were asked to start working out three days a week for 30 to 60 minutes for a period of six weeks; the research subjects could choose between walking, jogging, cycling or using an elliptical machine. Researchers sampled participants' gut microbiomes at the beginning and end of the six-week period, and the results were staggering. The composition of bacteria in the research subjects' digestive tracts had changed significantly. For some, the number and diversity of beneficial bacteria strains had grown; others saw a decrease in damaging bacteria. In particular, many participants saw an increase in good bacteria that contributes to the production of certain fatty acids that are known to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory diseases and heart disease. Even more remarkable, however, was what happened in the next stage of the study. Participants were asked to return to their old sedentary habits for an additional six weeks. At the end of this period, researchers found that their microbiomes had returned to their previous state as well. In other words, not only is exercise capable of changing the health of your gut--without exercise, you're limiting what you can do to improve your digestive (and whole body!) health.

The Added Benefits for Those with Chronic Digestive Tract Illness

For those suffering from a chronic digestive tract illness such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's Disease or ulcerative colitis, the effects that exercise can have on gut health are even more incredible. In one study of 102 adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), participants were split into two groups: one that was put on an exercise program and one that was not. Those who were asked to exercise experienced markedly improved GI symptoms as compared to their sedentary counterparts. Indeed, the researchers conducting the study concluded that exercise should be considered a primary treatment option for those with IBS. A similar study found that a 12-week exercise program reduced participants' IBS symptoms, with researchers hypothesizing that exercise helped reduce bloating and increase the efficiency of digestion. There's even some evidence that regular exercise may be able to prevent you from developing these debilitating digestive tract conditions. One study observed that a lifestyle marked by lower amounts of physical activity was commonly associated with developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), while more active adults were less likely to ever develop IBD. While this correlation doesn't prove causation, researchers had a theory as to why a sedentary lifestyle might lead to digestive tract illness: muscle contractions produced by exercise cause the body to release anti-inflammatory molecules known as myokines, which can combat the inflammatory molecules called cytokines that cause intestinal inflammation in Crohn's Disease patients. In other words, if the existing litany of evidence that exercise is a necessary component of a healthy life hasn’t already swayed you, just think of (and with) your gut. The health of your digestive tract is resting with you not resting. So along with everything else you're doing to protect your gut--eating your greens (#kaleyeah!), not letting stress get to you, and taking a daily probiotic supplement like those offered by LoveBug Probiotics.