Gastroenterologists swear by this one habit for better gut health

No, it’s not eating better (although that doesn’t hurt).

Gut health has become a hot topic in recent years. Usually every conversation about it is about probiotics.

It’s not that probiotics – or nutrition in general – aren’t essential for a well-functioning gut. But a Cleveland Clinic gastroenterologist says 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, Physician, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Lee says exercise helps to increase the mobility, or stretching and contraction, of the muscles in the GI tract. This movement allows food to be absorbed by the body and pass through the digestive tract. Then the body can eliminate what is not used efficiently, preventing discomforts such as bloating.

“Exercise has the greatest 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 a diet either.

Why should I care about gut health?

First things first: Why should you even care about gut health? It can feel like we are 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 can feel overwhelming. But it’s important.

“[The gut] is the engine of our body,” says Dr. Lee. “Some people may want to focus on the hood… but really it comes down to the engine. You want a well-oiled engine that works well, efficiently and dependably.”

Also, no part of the body works in a vacuum – a holistic approach is key.

“Gut health is vital to overall health. It affects how you feel, think, and run,” says Dr. Lee. “Your ability to digest food and absorb nutrients affects your bone health, heart health, circulation, brain health, and your ability to concentrate and stay focused.”

Related: This Is the Best Habit That Is Destroying Your Gut Health, According to an Integrative Medicine Doctor

The importance of exercise for gut health

Lee stuck to the car and motorcycle references as she discussed why she recommends more exercise 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 to eat, it’s like focusing on the highest quality gasoline in their car,” says Dr. Lee. “If your engine stinks, even the best, highest quality gasoline won’t run that car. Those are two separate entities. You can’t make up for a terrible engine with expensive gasoline.”

The intestinal tract acts as our body’s sanitary system, but it is made of muscles.

“You need muscle for strength and movement,” says Dr. Lee. “You need something to digest the food. If you don’t have the intestinal tract to digest and break down food, you’re not getting the most bang for your buck…Exercise keeps your intestinal tract strong and muscular and in movement.”

Related: These simple no-equipment exercises will give you the same fitness benefits as running

Focus on core workouts for gut health

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, which equates to an average of 30 minutes per day five times per week. Alternatively, individuals can opt for 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, or 15 minutes per day, five times per week.

Dr. Lee says that’s a good start, especially for cardio. But she stresses that people shouldn’t skimp on resistance training, especially in the core area. “We don’t have a gut in our quads or calf muscles,” says Dr. Lee.

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,” says Dr. Lee.

What about crunches? It depends on the individual. Lee notes that they may not be best for people with lumbar or cervical spine problems or for people who are pregnant or just postpartum, may not be the best.

Lee recommends talking to a specialist, such as a personal trainer who has experience working with people with spinal problems or who are pregnant or postpartum. They can help you tailor a core workout to your needs.

Related: Here’s Why You’ll Want To Add The Reverse Crunch To Your Workout Routine — And How To Make Them Easier

Discover hidden core workouts for a healthy gut

Dr. Lee understands – people are busy and spending 30 to 40 minutes working on the core can be challenging. But you may have hidden opportunities to get core workouts.

“Keep moving,” says Dr. Lee. “Intentionally park farther away. Don’t try to outsource housework or gardening.”

Chores like raking, mulching, weeding, and vacuuming can all get to the heart of the matter — seriously. “Keep a straight back,” says Dr. Lee. “You’re getting core exercises out of it. You just won’t realize it.”

Bonus points for pulling the navel toward the spine to activate the core as you cross items off your to-do list.

Related: Need More Motivation to Exercise? Here are 6 mental benefits

Yes, diet is still important for gut health

Speaking of to-do lists, can you take the worry out of your diet? Dr. Lee does not recommend it. As important as exercise is, nutrition is still another essential building block for a healthy gut.

“If you have a well-oiled machine and a good engine, but you don’t put good quality petrol in it, it won’t break down [right away]says Dr. Lee. “But over time, the motor may not last as long.”

Mixing is the key to a healthy, balanced diet. “The more variety you introduce, the more variety of vitamins you have available to feed your body,” says Lee.

Think about including multiple colors in your menu, such as:

  • Red peppers)

  • Orange (carrots)

  • Green (broccoli)

  • Blue (blueberry)

As with any food, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, even with fruits and vegetables. Lee says leaning too heavily on one item can cause vitamin deficiencies, which can affect gut health directly (bloating) or indirectly (muscle or bone problems that prevent you from exercising).

Related: The One Food Experts Swear By It For Better Gut Health

What Are the Signs of Poor Gut Health?

Lee says common symptoms of poor gut health include:

“Those are signs that waste is building up and you may need some help, whether it’s exercise to improve blood flow and muscle contraction so you have better mobility, or improving the foods you eat so you nourish the vitamins and the food in a better way,” says Lee.

You can talk to a family doctor or gastroenterologist. Lee says they can help you rule out other problems that are 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. In addition, they may recommend temporarily using a laxative such as Miralax.

“Usually, if you have gas or constipation, you may not be emptying your colon [efficiently]says Lee. “As that builds up, people get tired, fatigued, and they get cramps.”

Next, this is the absolute worst food for gut health, according to registered dietitians

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