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The motivation to exercise could lie in the gut

The motivation to exercise could lie in the gut

A recent study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania established a link between the gut microbes and the motivation to exercise.
Group of people exercising in the gym
Representational Image | Shutterstock

It is a familiar feeling every time the new year comes around. We make fitness resolutions to exercise more but being consistent is a task. While some may blame laziness, there is another factor that could be behind the lack of motivation to exercise – your gut.

“An unhealthy gut is due to an imbalance in the gut microbiota in the system (dysbiosis). This can affect the person’s mood and energy levels or enthusiasm,” says Sharanya Shastry, chief clinical nutritionist at Apollo Spectra Hospitals in Bengaluru.

In a recent study published in Nature, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) have established a link between the motivation to exercise and the gut microbiome.

Lead author of the study, Dr Christoph Thiass, assistant professor at the Department of Microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine in UPenn told Happiest Health: “We have used a machine-learning approach that nominated certain (microbes) that are regulators of exercise performance.”

For the study, 199 genetically engineered mice models were studied. Using metabolic profiling, genomic sequencing of gut microbiota, and stool and serum analysis, researchers explored the relationship between the gut microbiota and brain in motivation behind physical activity in the mice.

He further added that two species from the Eubacterium and Coprococcus genera were able to elevate the exercise capacity of the mice by the release of metabolites called fatty acid amides (FAAs).

Dopamine: The molecule behind motivation

“Dopamine is involved in many processes in the brain. For example, it plays a critical role in learning, reward, and motivation,” says Dr Thiass. The team found that microbiome-produced FAAs in the gut stimulate sensory neurons. Signals from these sensory neurons lead to increased dopamine levels in the striatum during exercise.

Dopamine, in turn, was found to enhance the desire for exercise in mice. The findings suggest that the motivation to exercise might depend on the state of the gut microbiome. Further studies will include figuring out if a similar pathway exists in humans.

“If the same pathway we discovered in animals is active in humans, then we would indeed hypothesize that dietary supplementation or microbial modulation could potentially offer a way to improve exercise performance by gastrointestinal intervention,” added Thiass.

Holistic ways to improve physical fitness

It is plausible that diet, lifestyle, or metabolite supplementation could aid a person’s motivation to exercise. However, researchers indicate it is likely other neurotransmitters and dopamine-dependent pathways could also be affected by the gut. This would mean it is possible a variety of mood disorders may be influenced through the microbiome.

“The holistic approach to health is multidimensional. It assumes that there is a complex connection between mind, body, and spirit. Healthy nutrition is an essential component of holistic fitness,” says Dr Soumita Biswas, chief nutritionist from Aster RV Hospital in Bengaluru.

Experts suggest a few holistic approaches to maintain a healthy gut-brain balance and improve dopamine levels:

  • Space out protein and fiber intake so that one does not have a gassy feeling. This also strengthens the muscles to improve the capacity to exercise
  • Maintain an electrolyte and water balance in the body
  • Consume probiotics in at least two meals per day
  • Get good sleep with adequate rest for proper working of the nervous system


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