Where’s your motivation?

We all know regular exercise is good for your health and decreases the risk of many diseases.  The World Health Organisation rates insufficient exercise to be the fourth leading risk factor for death worldwide and yet, 80% of adults don’t manage to get the recommended 150 minutes per week of exercise.

So if we know it’s good for us, why do some of us find it harder than others to get motivated to exercise?

There’s lots going on in the gut, I’ve written before about the gut-brain connection,  and the link between the gut, your weight, mood and immune system here, and here too. And it looks like we can add your motivation to exercise to the list.

A study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania published in December 2022 showed (in mice at least) that some species of gut bacteria activated nerves in the gut causing dopamine release, increasing activity in the motivation-controlling area of the brain which in turn, promoted the desire to exercise. The dopamine activity in the brain provided a feeling of reward, driving the desire to exercise (in the case of the mice, it made them want to run more).

A similar study (also on mice) which began in 1993 established the link between the gut and the motivation to exercise but didn’t directly examine the mechanisms of this relationship.

The 2022 study collected a range of data points for a group of genetically diverse mice and analysis found genetics was only responsible for a small amount of performance difference but that gut bacterial populations was considerably more important. They found that the mice with higher levels of some specific bacteria in the gut, produced more dopamine and ran more.

To back up this finding, they then used antibiotics to kill the gut bacteria.  This reduced the running endurance of high performing mice by half. When they transplanted the microbiome from a high performing mouse into another, it boosted its’ exercise capacity.

Ok, so while we can’t draw direct conclusions for humans from this study, and it’s still a work in progress, it’s worth noting we do have similar pathways and gut bacteria as the mice, and our microbiome may influence how we feel about exercise. Add it to the list of reasons to look after our gut health.

The usual suggestions apply:

  • Eat a variety of foods, especially plant-based wholefoods for a more diverse microbiome. Its estimated 75% of the world’s food is made from 12 plant and 5 animal species.
  • Increase fibre intake, they contain prebiotics that help your gut bacteria promote more beneficial bacteria.
  • Eat fermented foots like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir to support good gut bacteria.
  • Avoid antibiotics unless you really, really need them.
  • Manage chronic ongoing stress as it slows gut function.
  • Get good sleep as without it inflammation increases and gut function slows down; and
  • Get regular exercise, it will support a healthy microbiome and then maybe you’ll start feeling like exercising more.