If you’ve been diagnosed with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, you may be advised to lose weight, but that can be hard to do and takes precious time.
Fortunately, researchers may have found another strategy that can help lower liver fat in people with this condition, which affects nearly 30% of the global population.
Exercise of about 150 minutes each week at a moderate intensity — the exact recommendation from public health experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — significantly reduced liver fat in patients, the new meta-analysis showed.
“I spend a lot of my time trying to help improve the lives of our patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease [NAFLD],” says Dr. Jonathan Stine. He is an associate professor of medicine and public health sciences and a hepatologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, in Hershey, Pa.
“At this point in time, we still don’t have a regulatory agency-approved drug therapy or even a cure for this condition. And there are roughly a hundred million adults in this country that have this,” Stine notes.
While research had shown that exercise can improve liver fat, physical fitness, body composition and quality of life, there was no known specific amount of exercise that would do this.
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The importance of exercise
For this study, the researchers considered a 30% relative reduction in liver fat — measured by MRI scans — to be meaningful improvement. Then, they reviewed 14 randomized controlled trials with a total of 551 people with NAFLD.
The investigators found that, independent of weight loss, exercise was 3.5 times more likely to achieve this 30% reduction in liver fat compared to standard care.
Then they determined the optimal dose of exercise, finding that 39% of patients who were exercising briskly for 150 minutes per week or more achieved a significant treatment response compared to 26% of those who were exercising less than that.
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“There’s more and more evidence that exercise, even if you don’t lose a single pound, has many beneficial effects,” Stine shares. “I would really challenge the thinking that we prescribe exercise as a way for somebody to lose weight, but rather this can be thought of more to improve overall health in the absence of clinically significant weight loss.”
These reductions were similar to those reported in early-phase drug trials for those with