Our bodies are teeming with bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms that affect all our systems — including digestion, immunity, metabolism, and brain function — for better or for worse. And it may be that athletes have a distinct microbiome advantage.
Researchers at Ireland’s University College Cork set out to understand how exercise, or a lack of it, can affect the microbial diversity in our gastro-intestinal tracts. They were specifically interested in evaluating strains of bacteria associated with healthy weight and decreased inflammation.
They analyzed fecal and blood samples from 40 professional male rugby players and two nonathlete control groups — one normal-weight group and one overweight group — and found (not surprisingly) that the athletes had fewer inflammatory markers and better metabolic profiles.
While the study did not demonstrate that athletic activity is a causal (versus correlated) factor in microbiome health, it did show that, compared with both control groups, the rugby players had broader microbial diversity, including more of a bacterial species linked to lower rates of obesity and related metabolic disorders.
It’s unclear to what extent the comparative microbiome differences were a result of the athletes’ higher exercise levels, their more nutrient-dense diets (which included significantly more fruits, vegetables, and protein than the nonathletes’ diets), or some combination of the two. But the study suggests that microbiome health is more closely tied to general health and fitness than to body weight.
For more on the factors that affect microbiome health, see “Your Microbiome: The Ecosystem Inside“.