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Gut health is the wellness topic du jour — and with good reason. Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria, with some 500 species residing in our gastrointestinal tracts alone. These microbes affect everything from digestion and immunity to metabolic disorders and brain health. Probiotics, found in fermented foods as well as pills and powders, are one way to help your microbiome thrive.

Now, a new study shows that some unexpected factors, including exercise and protein intake, can also affect the beneficial bugs in our bellies.

The study, conducted by scientists at Aberdeen University and published in June in the journal Gut, looked at professional rugby players and a control group that included normal weight men with body mass indexes less than 25.5 and overweight men with BMIs over 28. (The BMI spread was designed to match non-athletes to the rugby players in terms of relative size. The groups were also matched in age. Body fat and muscle composition, both of which impact BMI, were not taken into consideration.)

The researchers hoped to see if exercise, or a lack of it, affects the microbial diversity in our guts. A variety of different strains of good bacteria is associated with healthy weight, decreased inflammation, improved immunity, and better mood, among other benefits.

According to the study, which analyzed fecal and blood samples along with food and exercise questionnaires, the rugby players had fewer inflammatory markers and better metabolic profiles than men in the control group.

They also had better microbial diversity, including more of a particular species of bacteria linked to lower rates of obesity and related metabolic disorders. As the rugby players and the non-athletes were matched in age and relative size, the benefits of diet and exercise seem independent of body weight: The athletes had better microbial diversity than both the normal-weight and overweight men.

Additionally, the study found several dietary differences between the groups. The rugby players ate more of all food groups, including fruits and vegetables, and a greater percentage of their daily calories came from protein — 22 percent versus about 15 percent for the control group.

It’s unclear if the microbial effects are due to the amount or type of exercise, the athletes’ diets, or some combination of the two. But broken down, the study results are consistent with general good health habits that even non-athletes can adopt: Move often, and eat a diverse diet filled with whole foods.

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