Staying active changes your gut, and that could be the key to healthy aging

Staying active could be just as important as what we eat to maintain a healthy gut in our older years

Group of older adults running outside
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Exercise is good for our mental and physical health, helping us live longer, healthier lives and improving our overall wellbeing. But new research has found that it might actually affect our gut microbiome, too, a critical part of our digestive and immune systems.

It's important to eat healthily at any age, but particularly as we get older. Our bodies change, and so do the nutrients we need from our diets. That's why many of us keep our levels of Omega-3 topped up by adding the best fish oil supplements into our day.

The foods we eat are turned into energy or other nutrients to power our body's various functions. But they also shape our gut microbiome, a collection of bacteria in our digestive system which plays a crucial role in our metabolism and immune system.

And while our diet is clearly an essential factor for a healthy gut, according to a new meta-analysis, a review of previous papers published in the journal Nutrients, exercise could be just as influential in our older years.

To look at the link between exercise and gut bacteria, the team examined seven published studies involving older adults, in this case, participants over 50 years old. The research showed a link between exercise and changes in participants' gut bacteria.

Interestingly, they were also able to identify the specific bacterial changes in the study. In a 2018 trial, a group of older men was given a five-week aerobic exercise plan, which led to an increase in Oscillospira, a specific form of bacteria.

When discussing these findings, the review's authors noted that "Oscillospira was previously found to be negatively associated with metabolic disturbances but positively associated with leanness and reduced BMI."

Two people exercising in a room

(Image credit: Getty Images)

This is backed up by a separate analysis in the journal Gut Microbes, which showed a link between higher levels of the bacteria and "regulatory effects in areas related to obesity and chronic inflammation."

Meanwhile, the meta-analysis also showed that exercise was associated with decreases in gut bacteria linked to inflammation and disease. One study, which placed a group of older women on an eight-week exercise program, also uncovered intriguing changes.

In particular, it seemed to increase levels of a bacteria known as Roseburia. Previous findings showed an association between low levels of this and muscle mass loss and muscle dysfunction, suggesting a link between Roseburia and muscle health.

The exact programs varied between studies, but they all used a combination of cardio workouts and resistance training. For instance, one trial used four 60-minute sessions per week, while another prescribed a graded intensity program over 24 weeks.

If you want to get started but are worried about joint pain, then you can use these low-impact exercises to build strength, burn fat, and improve your cardiovascular health without stressing your joints.

Similarly, the thought of picking up a pair of dumbbells might seem intimidating, which is why it's worth investing in a set of the best resistance bands. These are a great alternative to weights, as the bands come in several strengths and are more affordable.

They're also lightweight and portable, which means you can use them for quick stretches, as part of a yoga or Pilates class, or even to do the best chest workouts with resistance bands to build upper body strength.

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.