Do elite athletes have exceptional microbiota?

The higher an athlete's level, the more suited for competition the make-up of their gut microbiota. Predominant bacteria optimize the host’s metabolism, a factor in physical exertion, thereby contributing to the quality of performance.


Healthy microbiota in a healthy body: this might be the conclusion of a Chinese study aimed at finding the link between the level of sporting activity and the composition of the gut flora. The study stems from the recent scientific discovery that physical activity influences the diversity and abundance of the gut microbiota. However, it remained unclear whether there was a link between the level of sporting activity and the “quality” of the microbes in the gut, so the researchers studied the gut bacteria populations of 28 practitioners of wushu (traditional Chinese kung fu): 12 elite athletes and 16 lower-ranking athletes, all selected from the same professional team at Beijing Sport University to limit the impact of diet variations on the results. The only difference between them was the significantly higher number of training hours per week for the elite athletes.

Benefits of martial arts

The study concluded that the higher the level of the professional martial artist, the more diversified and abundant the beneficial bacteria in their gut microbiota. The bacterial groups found specifically in high-level athletes and the molecules they produce (short-chain fatty acids) make an important contribution to the metabolism of carbohydrates and amino acids, improving muscle performance. Conversely, lower-level athletes had a higher ratio of “harmful” bacteria, which are implicated in certain chronic inflammatory diseases and other illnesses.

Training-friendly bacteria

Another reason for exercise fanatics to be pleased is the existence of a direct link between the abundance of certain bacteria and the amount of high-level physical training undertaken, further proof, if any were needed, that to train (hard) is never in vain. However, the dynamics involved must be studied more carefully before any conclusion is reached on changes to the gut flora due to training, nutrition or probiotics aimed at improving the performance of ordinary athletes.



R. Liang, S. Zhang, X. Peng, et al. Characteristics of the gut microbiota in professional martial arts athletes: A comparison between different competition levels. PLoS ONE 14(12): e0226240. 10.1371/journal.pone.0226240