Dr Martin Juneau, M.D., FRCP

Cardiologue, directeur de l'Observatoire de la prévention de l'Institut de Cardiologie de Montréal. Professeur titulaire de clinique, Faculté de médecine de l'Université de Montréal. / Cardiologist and Director of Prevention Watch, Montreal Heart Institute. Clinical Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Montreal.

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1 February 2020
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Effectiveness of exercise to prevent and mitigate diabetes: An important role of the gut microbiota


  • In overweight, prediabetic and sedentary men, exercise induced changes in the gut microbiota that are correlated with improvements in blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity.
  • The microbiota of the participants who are “responders” to exercise had a greater ability to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and to eliminate branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Conversely, the microbiota of non-responders was characterized by an increased production of metabolically harmful compounds.
  • Transplantation of the fecal microbiota of responders into obese mice produced roughly the same beneficial effects of exercise on insulin resistance. Such effects were not observed after transplanting the microbiota of non-responders.

Regular exercise has beneficial effects on blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity, and is therefore an interesting strategy to prevent and mitigate type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, in some people, exercise does not cause a favourable metabolic response, a phenomenon called “exercise resistance”. The causes of this phenomenon have not been clearly established, although some researchers have suggested that genetic predispositions and epigenetic changes may contribute to this.

A growing body of data indicates that an imbalance in the gut microbiota (dysbiosis) plays an important role in the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Several different mechanisms are involved, including an increase in intestinal permeability and increased endotoxemia, changes in the production of certain short chain fatty acids and branched-chain amino acids, and disturbances in bile acid metabolism. Changes in the composition and function of the gut microbiota have been observed in people with type 2 diabetes and prediabetics. One study also showed that transplanting a healthy person’s microbiota into the intestines of people with metabolic syndrome results in increased microbial diversity and improved blood sugar control as well as sensitivity to insulin.

The intestinal microbiota (formerly intestinal flora) is a complex ecosystem of bacteria, archaea (small microorganisms without nuclei), eukaryotic microorganisms (fungi, protists) and viruses, which has evolved with human beings for several thousands of years. A human gut microbiota, which can weigh up to 2 kg, is absolutely necessary for digestion, metabolic function, and resistance to infection. The human gut microbiota has an enormous metabolic capacity, with more than 1,000 different species of bacteria and 3 million unique genes (the microbiome).

Recent data indicate that exercise modulates the gut microbiota in humans as well as in other species of animals. For example, it has been found that the gut microbiota of professional athletes is more diverse and has a healthier metabolic capacity than the microbiota of sedentary people. However, it is still unclear how these exercise-induced changes in the microbiota are involved in the metabolic benefits (see figure below).

Figure. Changes in the gut microbiota and intestinal epithelium through exercise and health benefits. BDNF: Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (growth factor). From: Mailing et al., 2019.

A study published in Cell Metabolism tried to answer this question by performing an intervention in overweight, prediabetic and sedentary men. Study participants were randomly assigned to a control group (sedentary) or to a 12-week supervised training program. Blood and fecal samples were collected before and after the procedure. After the 12 weeks, modest but significant weight loss and fat loss were observed in people who exercised, with improvements in several metabolic parameters, such as insulin sensitivity, favourable lipid profiles, improved cardiorespiratory capacity and levels of adipokines (signalling molecules secreted by adipose tissues) which are functionally associated with insulin sensitivity. The researchers observed that there was a high interpersonal variability in the results. After classifying the participants as “non-responders” and “responders”, according to their insulin sensitivity score, the researchers analyzed the composition of each participant’s microbiota.

Among responders, exercise altered the concentration of more than 6 species of bacteria belonging to the genera Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, and Probacteria. Among these bacteria, those belonging to the genus Bacteroidetes are involved in the metabolism of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Among the most striking differences between the microbiota of responders and non-responders, the researchers noted a 3.5-fold increase in the number of Lanchospiraceae bacterium, a butyrate producer (a SCFA), which is an indicator of intestinal health. The bacterium Alistipes shahii, which has already been associated with inflammation and is present in higher amounts in obese people, decreased by 43% in responders, while it increased 3.88 times in non-responders. The Prevotella copri bacteria proliferated at a reduced rate in the responders; it is one of the main bacteria responsible for the production of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) in the gut and contributes to insulin resistance.

The researchers then transplanted the fecal microbiota of responders and non-responders into obese mice. The fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) of the responders had the effect in mice of reducing blood sugar and insulin as well as improving insulin sensitivity, while such favourable effects were not observed in mice that received a FMT from non-responders.

Mice saw their blood levels of SCFAs increase significantly, while the levels of BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, valine) and aromatic amino acids (phenylalanine, tryptophan) decreased after receiving the microbiota from responders. In contrast, mice that received the microbiota from non-responders saw opposite changes in the levels of these same metabolites. BCAA supplementation attenuated the beneficial effects of FMT from responders on blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity, while SCFA supplementation in mice that received the microbiota of non-responders partially corrected the defect in blood glucose regulation and insulin sensitivity.

Taken together, these results suggest that the gut microbiota and its metabolites are involved in the beneficial metabolic effects caused by exercise. In addition, this study indicates that poor adaptation of the gut microbiota is partly responsible for the lack of a favourable metabolic response in people who do not respond to exercise.

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