We take a closer look at why walking in nature is so beneficial for good gut health, and how heading to different destinations is even better for diversifying good bacteria…
Words: Katherine Wyatt | Images: Shutterstock
Many of us are aware of the huge range of benefits walking offers – from a boosted mood to improved cardiovascular health. But did you know, walking could also aid you in your journey for good gut health? You may think that your diet is solely responsible for your microbiome, but research has shown just how great an impact movement can have on your gut health. In fact, researchers from the School of Microbiology at the University College Cork in Ireland found differences in the make-up of athletes’ microbiota according to the type of sport they did, showing just how influential exercise is on the gut.
Your gut will be grateful for any form of movement you do, whether it’s running, strength training, yoga or anything in between. However, walking – while low impact – appears to offer even greater benefits for your gut health. Below, we’ve rounded up some of the key benefits of walking for good gut health, along with some tips to help you reap the rewards…
7 benefits of walking for good gut health
1. Walking reduces gut-damaging stress
‘Always remind yourself your body is a part of nature, so a walk outside is intrinsically therapeutic – including for your gut health,’ says Abigail Ireland, a nutritionist and peak performance strategist. ‘When your nervous system is calm, your gut health prospers. But if you’re stressed, your body triggers “fight or flight” mode. This directs its attention away from digestive processes, leading to bloating and indigestion.’
Researchers from the University of Regina in the US say just five minutes of exploring or viewing “nature scenes” calms this parasympathetic fight or flight response and activates rest and digest mode. So, be sure to step out for a stroll if you feel your stress levels rising.
2. Walking helps with weight management
Regular exercise restores the balance of good gut bacteria by up to a whopping 40 per cent, according to researchers from Rutgers University in the US. ‘In particular, walking increases levels of the phylum Bacteroidetes. These are associated with improved metabolic health and protection against obesity,’ says nutritionist, Dr Maroula Natsi.
It’s also been found that people with lean body mass have more of the species Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Roseburia hominis and Akkermansia muciniphila in their microbiome make-up. ‘What’s more, exercise reduces populations of bacteria associated with Type 2
diabetes and inflammation,’ adds Dr Natsi.
3. Mixing up your walking route diversifies your microbiome
‘Research indicates that children growing up in microbe-rich environments, such as on farms, have more diverse gut microbiota and experience better health,’ says nutritionist Abigail Ireland. But you don’t need to relocate to the countryside to reap the benefits; simply switch up your rambling routes.
‘Walking in nature is so beneficial, because you’re exposed to a larger variety of microbes and bacteria than you’d otherwise come into contact with,’ adds Abigail. ‘These create diversity in your gut microbiome. In turn, this promotes a healthier internal environment and a stronger immune system.’
4. Walking helps to prevent leaky gut
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that is created when fibre ferments in your colon. Regular walking increases the strains F prausnitzii and R hominis in your gut, which boosts butyrate production. This helps line your digestive tract to prevent leaky gut. It could even protect against colon cancer, according to researchers from Monash University in Australia.
For an even bigger butyrate fix, eat cooked then cooled carbs, such as potatoes and oats. Or, add unripe bananas to a pre- or post-stroll smoothie.
5. Walking strengthens your immune system
Wherever you roam, if there are plants around, there are beneficial bacteria to be found! Phytoncides are plant-derived compounds that are inhaled or absorbed through your mouth or skin when you walk through parks, fields, or woodland. These increase the activity of immune cells in your gut, according to research from Nippon Medical School in Tokyo.
The cells remain active for up to five days after exposure, firing up your energy and lowering blood pressure as your digestive system remains calm. The phytoncides in pine oils in particular can help you relax as the plant oils activate your parasympathetic nervous system to
reduce stress and improve digestion.
6. Walking near water improves gut health and mood
In the UK, you’re never more than 70 miles from the coast, which is great news for your gut. Waves, whitecaps and waterfalls eject microbes
from seaweed and other seaborne elements into the air. These are good for your gut and help you build an even stronger microbiome.
A walk by the coast also exposes you to “negative ionisation” where water particles crash with oxygen in the air. This is associated with lower levels of depression, according to an article published in BMC Psychiatry.
7. Walking on higher ground exposes you to cleaner air
The higher you climb, the clearer the air will be. There are fewer volatile organic compounds in hilly or mountainous areas. This is better for your respiratory tract and helps your lungs expand more.
On a hill walk, take a moment to pause for deep restorative breaths. This will lift and strengthen your diaphragm, creating a massaging effect for your stomach and intestines to improve digestion. Plus, you’ll be filling your lungs with cleaner air.