No, it's not eating better (although that doesn't hurt).
Gut health has become a hot topic in recent years. Usually, any conversation about it involves probiotics.
It's not that probiotics—or diet in general—isn't essential for a well-functioning gut. But one gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic says that people need to get moving to keep things moving in their GI tract.
“Exercise improves circulation and promotes muscle strength and growth," says Dr. Christine Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic.
Dr. Lee says that exercise helps to increase motility or the stretching and contracting of the muscles located within the GI tract. This movement ensures food can get absorbed through the body and flow through the digestive tract. Then, the body can eliminate what is not used efficiently, preventing discomfort like bloating.
"Exercise has the biggest impact on digestion," says Dr. Lee.
But what kind of exercise is best for gut health, and how much do you need? Dr. Lee breaks it down and explains why you shouldn't ignore diet, either.
Why Should I Care About Gut Health?
First things first: Why should you care about gut health, anyway? It can feel like we're constantly being told to care about a specific organ or system—cardiovascular/heart, the brain and the list goes on. Being advised to do one more thing for one more body part may feel overwhelming. But it's important.
"[The gut] is the engine of our body," Dr. Lee says. "Some people may want to focus on the hood…but really, it boils down to the engine. You want to have a well-oiled engine that works well, efficiently and dependently."
Also, no one part of the body operates in a vacuum—taking a holistic approach is key.
"Gut health is vital to overall health. It affects how you feel, think and run," Dr. Lee says. "Your ability to digest food and absorb nutrients will affect your bone health, heart health, circulation, brain health and your ability to concentrate and stay focused.”
The Importance of Exercise for Gut Health
Lee kept with the car and engine references when discussing why she recommends increased movement as the first line of defense in maintaining good or improving poor gut health. Yes, even before discussing dietary habits.
"When people focus on what foods to eat, it’s like focusing on the highest quality gasoline in your car," Dr. Lee says. "If your motor stinks, even the best, highest quality gasoline is not going to make that car run. Those are two separate entities. You can’t make up for a terrible engine with high-premium gas."
The intestinal tract acts as our body's plumbing system, but it's made of muscle.
"You need muscle for strength and movement," Dr. Lee says. "You need something to digest the food. If you don’t have the intestinal tract to digest food and break it down, you won’t get the biggest bang for your buck...The exercise keeps your intestinal tract strong and muscular and moving.”
Focus on Core Workouts for Gut Health
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, which averages out to 30 minutes per day five times a week. Alternatively, individuals can opt for 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week, or 15 minutes daily, five times per week.
Dr. Lee says that's a good start, particularly for cardio. But she emphasizes people shouldn't skimp on resistance training, particularly in the core area."We don’t have an intestinal tract in our quads or calf muscles," Dr. Lee says.
Lee says pilates gives people the building blocks they need for a good core.
"It uses resistance training, whether it’s TRX or rubber bands or weights," Dr. Lee says.
What about crunches? It depends on the individual. Lee notes that they may not be best for people with lumbar or cervical spine issues or those who are pregnant or newly postpartum may not be best.
Lee recommends speaking with a specialist, such as a personal trainer who has experience working with people with spine issues or who are pregnant or postpartum. They can help you cater a core workout to your needs.
Uncover Hidden Core Workouts for a Healthy Gut
Dr. Lee gets it—people are busy, and dedicating 30 to 40 minutes to working the core may be a challenge. But you may have hidden opportunities to get core workouts.
"Keep moving," Dr. Lee says. "Park further away on purpose. Try not to farm out housework chores or yard work.”
Chores like raking, mulching, pulling weeds and vacuuming can all engage the core—seriously. "Maintain a straight back," Dr. Lee says. "You’ll get core exercise out of it, you just won’t realize it."
Bonus points for pulling the belly button to the spine to engage the core as you cross items off your to-do list.
Yes, Diet Is Still Important to Gut Health
Speaking of to-do lists, can you cross caring about your diet off of it? Dr. Lee doesn't recommend it. As important as exercise is, diet is still another essential building block to a healthy gut.
“If you have a well-oiled machine and a good engine, but you don’t put good quality gasoline into it, it won’t break down [right away]," Dr. Lee says. "But over time, the engine may not last as long.”
Mixing it up is key to a healthy, well-balanced diet."The more variety you introduce, the more variety of vitamins you will have available to nourish your body,” Lee says.
Think about incorporating multiple colors into your menu, like:
As with any food, there's such a thing as too much of a good thing—even with fruits and veggies. Lee says leaning too heavily into one item can cause vitamin deficiencies, which can affect gut health directly (bloating) or indirectly (muscle or bone issues that bench you from exercise).
What Are the Signs of Poor Gut Health?
Lee says common symptoms of poor gut health include:
Lack of energy
Gas, particularly the foul-smelling kind
"Those are signs that waste is building up, and you might need to get some help, whether it’s exercising to improve blood flow and muscular contraction so you have better motility or improving foods you eat so you can nourish the vitamins and get rid of the food in a higher-quality way," Lee says.
You can speak with a primary care physician or gastroenterologist. Lee says they can help you rule out any other issues contributing to your symptoms. If and when they do, they'll likely make the same recommendations as Lee — exercise and diet — to improve your gut health. Additionally, they may recommend temporarily using a laxative powder like Miralax.
"Usually, if you have gas or constipation, you may not be emptying your colon [efficiently]," Lee says. "As that accumulates, people get tired, fatigued and cramps.”
Christine Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic