Gut microbes may help determine our motivation for exercise, new study finds

The contents of our guts – and therefore what we eat – may help determine how likely we are to get up from the couch and go for a run, according to a new authoritative study.

It has long been known that the way the human brain responds to exercise helps motivate it to do it over and over. Most of us get an enjoyable “dopamine kick” while commuting or biking, for example, helping us maintain it as a daily wellness habit.

Now scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that the intensity of this kick is determined, at least in part, by our microbiome, the mix of microbes that exist in our guts.

In a series of carefully constructed experiments described in the journal Nature, they discovered that the rats were able to adjust their propensity to exercise and their power to do so by changing what was in their guts.

“In this study, we show that the brain circuitry involved in regulating motivation for physical activity … is shaped by the gut microbial community,” the authors report. They added that it provides a basis for understanding “variability in exercise motivation and performance” among individuals.

In other words, the contents of our gut can help you determine whether you’re a couch surfer or a gym bunny.

Or in scientific terms: “These findings have several important implications. First, they suggest that the neurochemical effects underlying ‘runner’s drunkenness’ may be influenced by the gastrointestinal tract, the phenomenon of pleasure, reward, anxiolysis, and analgesia driven by endocannabinoid release after prolonged physical activity.”

Although the study was only done in mice (far from us humans), the researchers discovered that they could make the rodents more active by supplementing their food with certain ingredients.

The “strongest” additives were found to be fatty acid amides (FFA), lipid molecules commonly found in sesame and other vegetable oils. These increased dopamine levels in mice and increased their working capacity.

It’s just one study, and it’s too early to tell if the same effect could be found in humans or even be particularly beneficial.

We already know that a well-balanced diet in general is linked to health, and there are many famous things that influence our motivation to exercise – what’s on TV or how cold it is outside, just to mention two.

But certain diets or supplements can help increase people’s motivation to exercise.

“We don’t yet know whether the same gut-brain pathway that drives exercise capacity in mice is active in humans,” said Christoph Thaiss, lead author of the study. However, if it did, it would open up a wide range of opportunities to regulate physical performance through the gastrointestinal tract, which could benefit both recreational runners and professional athletes.

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