Food Is More Than Fuel – The Connection Between Gut Health and Exercise


Please login to view this content , or sign up for an account

Whether you are a high performing athlete, or an everyday fitness enthusiast, the benefits of living an active lifestyle are numerous. The CDC currently recommends at least 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity and two days of muscle strengthening activities per week for adults to decrease the risk of chronic diseases and reap the many health benefits exercise provides. Meeting or exceeding these recommendations can reduce the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, many forms of cancer, and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

The long-term benefits of physical activity and its impact on disease prevention is well known, but exercise also affects our daily wellbeing, modulating many systems in the body including metabolism, immunity, hormones, and gut health. While the gut microbiome is involved and influenced by physical activity, depending on the intensity, duration, and frequency, exercise has been shown to be an environmental factor that can have a positive effect on the health of the microbial ecosystem. Even though it didn’t show causality, a study by Mehrbod Estaki and co investigators at the University of British Colombia, showed that cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with an increase in microbial diversity. Maintaining a well-balanced gut alone should be a motivating reason to live an active lifestyle.

“Exercise not only benefits gut health and metabolic health long-term, but can also have a positive impact on brain health”

Although it’s never too late to make lifestyle changes like being more physically active, incorporating exercise at a young age has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the “young” gut microbiome and create a lasting positive impact later in life. A study in laboratory rats by Monika Fletcher’s research group at the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that juvenile exercise can improve gut microbial composition and lead to greater metabolic benefits like an increase of lean muscle mass, when compared to adult exercise.

Exercise not only benefits gut health and metabolic health long-term, but can have a major impact on brain health. A recent study by Arpana Gupta at the Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA explored the association between physical activity and alterations within the brain-gut axis. Results showed that higher physical activity was “associated with microbiome signatures protective towards mental health” including higher levels of resilience, emotional coping, and lower levels of food addiction. In contrast, low levels of physical activity was associated with the relative abundance of microbial taxa which have previously been shown to contribute to increased gut permeability and inflammation. Intestinal immune activation has been linked to certain mental health conditions such as depression. These findings suggest that increased physical activity can be useful to prevent the development of certain mental health conditions related to brain inflammation. Another study done in mice, recently found that gut microbes may affect motivation to exercise, showing the interconnectedness of gut health and brain functions like mood and energy.

While it’s important to exercise frequently and maintain an active lifestyle, excessive exercise and overexertion can be damaging for the microbiome and cause dysbiosis. Intense physical activity is a stressor to the body which can have detrimental effects on gut health. Finding a personal balance between physical activity, recovery , stress management and an anti-inflammatory diet is key to ensure exercise-induced inflammation is kept to a minimum to achieve good gut health and overall wellbeing. This is even more critical for elite athletes whose training regimen causes inevitable stress to the body. Depending on the sport and season, reducing intensity of exercise is most likely not feasible, making dietary choices even more impactful.

“Dietary choices not only provide energy for physical movements but can also greatly impact wellbeing by lowering inflammation in the body, both in the gut and muscles.”

The term “food is fuel” is entirely truthful, and how athletes and everyday people “fuel” their bodies before and after activity is critical. Dietary choices not only provide energy for physical movements but can also greatly impact wellbeing by lowering systemic inflammation, both in the gut and muscles. Eating a well-balanced diet, with anti-inflammatory foods can be helpful to promote an overall reduction of inflammation in the body, while enhancing recovery and optimizing athletic ability.

In terms of fuel, a proper macronutrient breakdown between carbohydrates, fats, and protein is especially important for those who are physically active. Our bodies prefer to use carbohydrates, as in fiber, starches, and sugars, for physical activities as they are the primary source of energy, and arguably the most important macronutrient for brain and muscle function. The body converts these carbohydrates into glucose, and when it is not needed for energy, it is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles to later be used as fuel. Current sports nutrition dietary guidelines from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute suggest 3-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight for athletes depending on the type and duration of the activity. The higher the training intensity, depending on the duration and energy expenditure, requires more carbohydrate intake to replenish depleted glycogen stores. Eating a carbohydrate rich foods both pre and post workout is an important strategy to maintain energy and aid recovery, while the body rebuilds muscle fibers and replenishes energy stores. To sustain energy, choosing fiber-rich complex carbohydrates can be beneficial two to three hours before, or immediately after exercise. This includes starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash, beans, and whole grains like oats, whole wheat bread, and brown rice. To avoid digestive distress during physical activity, allowing time to process a meal is important, otherwise choose a quickly digesting snack 30 minutes beforehand, like a piece of fruit for example.

“…nutrition and exercise are two major lifestyle components that influence the health of our microbiome, ultimately having the potential to create a higher quality life.”

Post workout, prioritizing a balanced meal of carbohydrates paired with protein immediately, or within one to two hours, promotes proper recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage. Protein sources including chicken, fish, turkey, eggs, Greek yogurt, and plant-based options like tofu and quinoa are great complete protein choices to give your body the amino acids needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

In addition to ingesting complex carbohydrates, healthy fats including omega-3 fatty acids from small fatty fish, like sardines and anchovies, salmon, tuna, herring, and plant-based sources like flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds are also helpful for decreasing inflammation within the body. Short chain fatty acids derived from the microbial metabolism of complex, fiber filled carbohydrates, also can provide anti-inflammatory effects. Incorporating a healthy fat source with protein and complex carbohydrates, along with a serving of vegetables, creates a well-balanced meal to nourish your body and support gut and brain health.

Nutrition and exercise are two major lifestyle factors that influence the health of our microbiome, ultimately having the potential to create a higher quality life. You don’t need to be a competitive athlete to prioritize nutrition strategies that align with your exercise regimen to optimize wellbeing. Whether you enjoy long walks in the park, are an avid marathoner, yogi, or prefer weightlifting, dietary choices to improve gut health, athletic performance, and recovery are useful for any individual who enjoys regular movement.

Eden Susenguth is a certified Nutritionist and Wellness Coach and earned her master’s degree in Kinesiology from Saint Mary’s College. Eden specializes in sports nutrition and women’s health and has worked with a wide range of clientele all over the US and abroad, including professional and collegiate athletes, models, actors, pageant contestants, and everyday men and women looking to make health improvements and reach their goals.