Why looking after your digestive system is more important than you might think – and how exercise can help

 The role of the digestive system is to break down (or digest) our food, eliminate toxins and absorb the energy and other key nutrients our bodies need to function well. But it’s important in other ways too.

For one thing, about 70% of the body’s immune system resides in the gut. So if our gut health is compromised (by eating a bad diet, smoking or stress for example), so is that of our immune system, leaving us at increased risk of a wide range of conditions. According to research, these could include: autoimmune conditions such as coeliac disease, colds and flu, type 1 diabetes, obesity, skin conditions such as eczema, chronic fatigue and even cancer.

Gut health also plays an important role in how our mind functions and how happy we feel. If our gut health is under par, our mental wellbeing can also suffer.

So it’s not just about preventing digestive disorders such as constipation, bloating and wind – our digestive health really is central to our overall wellbeing. The good news is that there are simple things we can all do to help support good gut health.

Making sure we eat and drink the right things is obviously important. How we move our bodies also affects our digestion. For one thing it helps stimulate the gut and increases intestinal activity. Physical activity increases blood flow to the muscles in the digestive system, which massage our food along the digestive tract – a process known as peristalsis – causing them to work more quickly and effectively.

Research also suggests that exercise affects the balance of bacteria in the gut. This gut flora as it’s known plays an active role in protecting our immune system, preventing the growth of bad bacteria and helping the body digest and absorb what it needs from the foods we eat.

Here health and fitness expert, Sarah Kemp offers up some top tips for keeping your gut functioning well, and suggests a special set of moves to try to help boost your digestive health.


Top tips for better digestion

 Tip 1: Eat well for good digestion

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is key for maintaining our overall health and wellbeing. When it comes to aiding digestion and bowel health, fibre plays a particularly important role by keeping everything moving through the digestive system. Getting your 5-a-day not only delivers fibre but also antioxidants, which help to delay or prevent cell damage. Meanwhile try to avoid or reduce your intake of red and processed meats as there is strong evidence that eating a lot of these increases your risk of bowel cancer.


Tip 2: Drink for digestion

We should be drinking around 6-8 glasses of water a day in order to stay hydrated. Drinking a glass of water after every meal or snack counts towards this goal and also helps flush out toxins and aid digestion.


Tip 3: Walk for good digestion

After a light meal or a snack, go for a brisk walk (after a heavy meal, wait an hour before setting off). By walking, you will improve your metabolism, as well as giving your digestive system a kick-start. Note that it’s important to stick to walking and avoid any high-impact activities, such as trampolining or running.


Tip 4: Reduce stress

Stress can weaken your body’s resistance, immune system and digestive performance, which can leave your feeling tired, bloated and lacking in energy. A good way of beating stress is to ensure that you’re doing some form of exercise on a regular basis.


Tip 5: Avoid rigorous aerobic exercise

While digestion is taking place, it is important to avoid certain types of high-impact exercise, such as running, kick boxing, trampolining, dancing and team sports. These exercises can upset the digestive system and cause discomfort and stitches, so stick to walking and other low-impact physical activities.


Digestive exercises routine: The Super 3

Peristalsis is the involuntary muscle movement in the gut that helps us digest food by massaging it along the digestive tract. This specially designed exercise routine helps boost your digestion by assisting this process.

You can perform the routine straight after a light meal or snack. After a heavier meal, wait about 30 minutes before you begin.

It’s recommended that you use an exercise mat or towel when performing the exercises to protect your knees while you’re kneeling.


Exercise 1

This exercise is fine to do after a small meal or snack. It’s important that you don’t rush it, so focus on performing the movement in a slow and controlled manner.

Come down onto all fours and place your hands flat on the floor directly under your shoulders. Your knees should be directly under your hips. Ensure your spine is straight.

Very slowly, extend your right arm so it’s in line with your shoulder. At the same time, lift your left leg so your heel is in line with your hips. Aim to create a straight line from your right arm all the way through to your left foot.

Hold this position for a second, then very slowly start to draw in your right arm and left knee until you’re back to the starting position.

From here drop your head and tail bone and allow your back to arch as if you’re being pulled up by a belt. Hold this for a second then, on the same leg and arm, repeat for a minimum of ten times. Rest and repeat on the other side.

Once you’ve completed this routine, follow straight on to the stretching exercises. These will help reduce any feelings of bloating and at the same time help to massage the stomach muscles, aiding the peristalsis process.


Exercise 2

Turn over, so you’re now lying on your back on your mat or towel.

Simply bend both of your knees into your chest and hug them for a few seconds.

Now, very slowly, extend one leg out straight while still hugging the other knee. Then draw the straight leg back in and switch.

Your head and shoulders should remain on the floor throughout this exercise. Repeat 10 times.


Exercise 3

Finish off by taking both feet back down to the floor and slowly lengthening your legs straight out on the ground so you’re lying flat with arms by your side.

Slowly extend your arms out to the side and up past your head, keeping them in contact with the floor throughout the movement.

Now stretch, making yourself as long as possible. This releases any pressure in the gut. Hold this stretch for 10-20 seconds.


And that’s all there is to it!