Exercise can play a pivotal role in promoting overall health, from protecting against diseases to improving mental well-being. Yet, some employees seem to enjoy exercise more than others.
A study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania aimed to understand the factors affecting exercise performance in mice. Researchers found that the makeup of the gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living in the gut, better predicted how much and how long mice voluntarily ran on a wheel than genetic, metabolic, or behavioral traits.
These findings suggest that motivation to exercise is directly influenced by gut health, which presents a targeted strategy to help employees increase their physical activity levels. This article covers the intriguing connection between gut health and exercise motivation and ways employers can support employees in improving their gut health.
“Exercising recomposes the microbiome, and the improved gut reinforces the desire to work out.”
Pressed for time? Here’s a quick summary:
- Exercise settles the microbiome, and an improved gut strengthens the desire to exercise, creating a connection between gut health and physical activity motivation.
- Employers should consider ways to educate employees on the importance of gut health, which affects mood, energy, sleep, and work productivity.
- Gut health can be enhanced by eating fiber and probiotic-rich foods, managing stress levels, and continuing to regularly exercise to sustain the mind and body connection.
Gut To Brain: The Surprising Link Between Mind & Body Health
Research in the last decade has shown that the gut and its microbial inhabitants have an undeniable impact on overall health. Microbes play a crucial role in boosting immunity and mental health and are linked to various diseases, including obesity, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Interestingly, exercise has been proven to diversify the microbiome and improve gut health. New research suggests that the opposite might also be true—gut bacteria could influence the willingness to exercise.
In one study, researchers wiped out the gut bacteria of “marathon mice” (mice who ran three times as much as the average mouse) with antibiotics. The result? They observed a 21% decrease in the daily distance the mice ran.
Another study looking at mice with varying exercise habits found that exercise activates the release of certain molecules in the gut. These molecules stimulate specialized nerves connecting the gut and midbrain, which prompts the release of extra dopamine, the neurochemical associated with motivation and reward. The higher the amounts of good bacterial strains in the gut, the more dopamine the brain produced, and the more the mice ran.
In these studies, the microbiome influenced the animals’ willingness to run. Conversely, running created a “high” originating in the gut, motivating them to continue exercising.
What does this mean for humans? Humans are not mice, but the two species share most of the same nerves and midbrain processes. So, it’s plausible that similar to what was found in the mice, the willingness to exercise in humans depends heavily on the state of the microbiome, and exercise itself may be the best motivator. Exercising recomposes the microbiome and the improved gut reinforces the desire to work out.
3 Ways To Improve Gut Health & Increase Exercise Motivation
Gut health affects mood, energy, and sleep, all of which contribute to employee engagement, productivity, and performance at work. Organizations should implement workplace wellness strategies that promote the importance of gut health and provide resources that help employees adopt healthy behaviors to improve their own well-being.
1. Provide Fiber-Rich & Probiotic-Packed Food Options
Fruits and vegetables, such as raspberries, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes, are fiber-rich, promoting healthy gut bacteria growth. Whole grains also contain high amounts of fiber. Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha are known for their probiotic properties that aid gut health. Consider keeping some high-fiber and probiotic snacks stocked in the office for employees to enjoy. On-demand recipe libraries, nutrition webinars, and live food demonstrations are also effective ways to reach remote employees.
2. Reduce Stress Levels
Research suggests that stress, depression, and anxiety are affected by gut health and vice versa, giving the gut its nickname, “the second brain.” Employers can help by providing stress management resources such as mindfulness and meditation workshops. They can also offer benefits that indirectly help reduce stress, such as family-friendly benefits that alleviate the responsibilities of working parents, emergency savings plans for those facing financial uncertainty, and flexible work arrangements to promote work-life balance.
3. Incentivize Physical Activity
As noted in the previously referenced studies, exercise promotes healthy gut bacteria, and physical inactivity can make it even harder to gain motivation to move. Employers can encourage physical activity by allowing employees to take periodic breaks during the workday to stretch or go on a walk. They can also organize active team-building activities, such as a group hike or company basketball game, or implement employee wellness challenges, like step competitions. Providing opportunities for bonding and friendly competition can make physical activity so enjoyable that employees forget they are exercising!