Exercise is known to be essential for both our mental and our physical health. It is good for the heart, for keeping weight down and may help prevent some kinds of cancer; moreover, it can help keep our spirits up, as well as boosting our creativity and learning.

According to a new study recently published in Gut, however, the benefits of exercise may not end there. Researchers suggest that frequent exercise may also play an important role in our whole-body health by – directly or indirectly – contributing to the diversity of our gut microbiota.

In recent years there has been a boom in studies that try to shed some light on the importance of a healthy, diverse and balanced community of bacteria in our gut, our gut flora or gut microbiota, as they contribute to our metabolism and the appropriate development of the immune system. As we have already explained in this blog, people with balanced, diverse microbiota may be less prone to obesity, immunity problems, inflammatory diseases such as IBS, or even diabetes, than people with low microbial diversity.

Diet used to be considered the key factor influencing gut microbiota, as well as lifestyle choices (like stress or smoking). Until now, little had been done to examine the relationship between regular, frequent exercise and gut bacteria. A new study led by scientists at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland, has for the first time specifically explored the impact of sport in gut microbiota diversity.

Researchers analysed stool and blood samples from forty professional rugby players during their preseason training program, as well as from two control groups made up of healthy adult men, none of who were professional athletes. All of the volunteers completed questionnaires about their exercise routines and normal food intake.

Scientists discovered that the athletes had higher microbiota diversity than the men in the control groups, especially those men with weight problems. They also found that the rugby players had larger amount of a beneficial bacterium called Akkermansia linked in previous studies with a decreased risk of both obesity and systemic inflammation. The dietary breakdown also showed athletes ate more proteins than the two other comparison groups (22 % vs 15 %), as well as more fruit and vegetables and fewer snacks. The study even called this dietary habits “extreme”.

The results of the study are still preliminary and it is not yet completely clear whether physical activity is the main factor altering gut microbiota composition or whether a higher intake of proteins could also have a role. A follow-up study is currently ongoing, with results expected for later this year.