Exercises for gut health: which workouts can help?

Experts explain how exercise helps gut health, and the specific activites you should include in your workout routine.

We associate exercising with improving our physical and mental health, but what about our gut health? It’s well known that exercise affects gut health in many positive ways, from preventing constipation to promoting bowel regularity and gut microbe diversity.

But it’s not all good news – too much or high intensity exercise could worsen gut symptoms or hinder digestion. 

Getting the balance right in terms of which exercises for gut health – and how much of them to do – can be tricky. The key is understanding this fascinating connection and finding out what works for you. Just be reassured that it is possible to maintain a healthy active lifestyle that is in harmony with your gut. 

Three women performing yoga twist exercises outsideCredit: Shutterstock / Sabrina Bracher

How does exercise help gut health?

Similar to sleep and gut health and stress and gut health, there are also links between exercise and gut health.  

There are various benefits that regular moderate exercise can provide for your gut health. 

Can promote regular bowel movements 

Feeling backed up? A brisk walk or a bike ride could help.

Dr Sunni Patel, a personal trainer, culinary medicine expert and nutritional therapist, explains: Exercise, especially moderate-intensity aerobic activities, can stimulate the muscles in the intestines. This leads to increased contractions, which helps to improve gut motility [movement of food through the digestive tract] and, in turn, prevents constipation.” He adds that this can also reduce uncomfortable gut symptoms, such as gas and bloating.  

However, intense physical activity can have the opposite effect. Patel says: “Muscle contractions in the digestive tract can slow down or become less coordinated, which can cause digestive discomfort or delayed gastric emptying [a disorder where food stays in your stomach longer than it should].” 

May improve digestive function 

Patel says: “Physical activity increases blood flow throughout the body, including in the digestive system. Improved blood circulation promotes the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the gut, supporting its overall health and function.”  

However, “during intense exercise, blood flow is diverted away from the digestive system to supply the working muscles,” he says. “This may lead to digestive discomfort or even cause symptoms like nausea or diarrhoea in some.” So, if you are prone to gut issues, it’s probably best to stick to moderate-intensity activities, such as water aerobics or hiking 

Can reduce gut-related inflammation 

If you suffer with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), moving regularly could be beneficial. This is because “chronic inflammation in the gut can contribute to digestive disorders like IBD”, says Patel. But “regular exercise has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. It can help to regulate the inflammatory response, potentially reducing the risk and severity of gut-related inflammation.”  

But Patel warns: “Intense or prolonged exercise can cause a condition called ‘leaky gut’, temporarily allowing substances to leak into the bloodstream. This may trigger inflammation and digestive symptoms in those who are susceptible.” 

Can aid relief of stress-related gut symptoms 

Many of us have experienced the welcome calm that stepping out for a walk or jog can bring. “Regular exercise is known to reduce stress levels and improve mental wellbeing,” says Patel. 

“This can have a positive effect on gut function, via the gut-brain axis, which is a two-way communication system between our gut and brain,” say Lucy Kerrison and Josie Porter, gut specialist dietitians at the Gut Health Clinic 

“Chronic stress can disrupt the normal functioning of our digestive system and lead to a range of gut issues, such as bloating, urgency to go to the toilet and stomach pain.” By alleviating stress, these symptoms can be reduced or alleviated too. 

When it comes to specific gut conditions, Patel says: “Studies have shown exercise can help to manage irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Exercise, including yoga and Pilates, can help alleviate stress, which is a trigger for IBS symptoms. By reducing stress levels, this may contribute to improved digestion and decreased IBS flare-ups.” Although research surrounding this is still limited. 

Best exercises for gut health

It’s true that “variety is the spice of life”. Patel says there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution or one exercise that has been deemed better than another. “However, doing a range of exercises that promote overall fitness and wellbeing can have positive effects on gut health,” he says.

Here are a few he suggests:

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise

Activities such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling increase your heart rate, which increases blood flow to the digestive system and promotes better gut function and digestion. 

Yoga

Yoga is often recommended for gut health due to its combination of physical movement and mindfulness.

Certain yoga poses, such as twists and forward bends, can provide gentle compression and massage to the abdominal area, aiding digestion and relieving constipation. What’s more, the use of deep breathing and relaxation techniques can support digestion by reducing stress. If you’re new to the practice, give these beginner yoga postures a try.

However, do bear in mind that deep twists or compressions of the abdomen could trigger symptoms in people with sensitive digestive systems. But this doesn’t apply to everyone and some with gut issues may tolerate these movements well. 

Pilates

Pilates exercises focus on core strength, stability and controlled movements, which can improve posture and support optimal digestion.

The practice also includes breathing techniques and mindful movement, which can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Find out about Pilates and what it’s good for in our beginner’s guide to Pilates.

Strength training

Strength training – using either bodyweight or weights for exercise – can contribute to overall fitness and support gut health indirectly.

Also called resistance training, it improves muscle tone and metabolism, which can have positive effects on digestion and nutrient absorption. Why not give these easy 15-minute gym workouts a try?

Just be sure to get your form right, as resistance training with improper form can put more pressure on the abdomen, which may worsen symptoms for people with conditions like hernias, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) or haemorrhoids. Again, remember, what triggers symptoms in one person may not in another. 

Patel advises: “Listen to your body, be mindful of your symptoms and talk to your GP or a qualified fitness instructor, to determine exercises that are appropriate for your specific condition and needs.” 

Does exercise improve gut bacteria?

Just as eating a variety of gut healthy plant-based foods can improve diversity of your gut bacteria, so too can sustained movement. “Regular exercise may increase the range and number of bacteria in our gut,” say Kerrison and Porter. They say it’s important to be aware that the odd one-off session doesn’t have the same positive effect.  

“Increased diversity of gut bacteria may help to optimise our health and prevent disease,” they add. Patel agrees: “Diverse and balanced microbes is associated with better gut health and overall wellbeing.” This is particularly important as we age because our gut bacteria diversity tends to decrease.  

Another way that exercise supports gut bacteria is indirectly through our quality of shut-eye. Kerrison and Porter say physical activity improves sleep and better sleep can result in an increase in beneficial gut bacteria. 

How gut health affects motivation and performance

A man and woman doing yoga triangle pose.Credit: Shutterstock/Evgeny Atamanenko

Not felt motivated to workout recently? It could be down to your microbiome – the trillions of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) in your gut. While there are physical ways that our gut can affect exercise, for example around 30-50% of athletes say gut symptoms are one of the most common causes of underperformance, it seems the gut-brain axis also plays a role in influencing the effect of gut health on exercise motivation, performance and energy levels 

A recent animal study showed that the makeup of a mouse’s microbiome influenced its motivation for exercise, partly due to sending signals to the animal’s brain. The study also found that if a mouse’s microbiome was altered, this, in turn, altered whether it felt like moving and exercise performance.  

While this was an animal study, recent human research has found that the microbiomes of active people are different from those of people who exercise less. This suggests the bacteria in our gut could shape whether we want to engage in or avoid exercise. 

We asked Patel for his take. He says: “Certain bacteria in the gut can produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which are known to affect mood and motivation, and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which serve as an energy source for the body. It’s probable that the gut microbiome could influence a person’s motivation to engage in physical activity, as well as their energy levels and exercise performance. 

“However, this is an area that needs more human studies to fully understand the processes involved,” he continues.

Gut health exercise tips from the experts

Kerrison and Porter provide tips for getting the most out of your exercise routine for a healthy gut. 

Gradually build up your exercise intensity and duration

This will give your gut time to adjust and help to prevent uncomfortable symptoms. 

Consider altering your diet

If you usually eat two to three large meals a day and no snacks, you might want to try spreading your meals out into smaller portions,” they advise.

It’s also important to think about what you’re eating, making sure you’re including the main food groups.

“Ensure your meals include some protein (think beans, fish, eggs, dairy, tofu or chicken) for muscle repair, carbohydrates (such as wholegrains, fruits, vegetables or legumes) to restore energy levels, fats (like extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, tahini or nut butter) and plenty of colourful plants.” 

Drink fluids before, during and after exercise

The importance of hydration during exercise is paramount.

“Dehydration can lead to decreased gut muscle movement, slowing down digestion and potentially leading to symptoms like constipation or bloating,” Kerrison and Porter share.

Whilst they add that “hydration needs will vary depending on exercise type, intensity and duration”, it’s advisable to make sure to begin your workout hydrated, sip fluid every 10-15 minutes during exercise, and keep your fluids topped up to rehydrate afterwards.

Manage your caffeine intake

“Caffeine can help to boost our exercise performance, but too much can stimulate bowel movements. Try having a single shot espresso in your coffee of choice or having some milk alongside to reduce the absorption of the caffeine.”

Make time for rest

“Overexercising may lead to inflammation, injury and stress,” Kerrison and Porter advise – so be sure to build rest days into your weekly exercise routine.

Create an exercise routine you can stick to

“Ultimately gaining the gut health benefits of exercise will come down to how consistent you are with your routine,” they conclude. 

Expert bios

Dr Sunni Patel PhD, MBA, PGDip (Cul Med) is a culinary medicine and nutritional therapy expert. With more than 15 years of healthcare experience and 10 years working in senior corporate roles, Dr Patel has a passion and proven success for bringing wellness into everyday life. He is also founder of health coaching and food education platform Dish Dash Deets and has a PhD on the risk factors for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. 

Lucy Kerrison and Josie Porter are gut specialist registered dietitians at The Gut Health Clinic. They both specialise in the use of the low FODMAP diet in managing IBS and other conditions. Kerrison is passionate about helping clients reduce debilitating gut symptoms and understand their gut while it’s Porter’s mission to support others in being happy in their skin and improve various markers of health. 

Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her

Updated:

Gemma Harris has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded thegutchoice.com – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

  • instagram
  • linkedin