Lifestyle Changes Can Quickly Reverse Heart Risks

In 3 weeks, improvements in diet and exercise can have big impact, study finds

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By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 11, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- In less than a month, individuals can reverse serious heart disease risk factors by making significant lifestyle changes, researchers are reporting.

In an encouraging study conducted on overweight men, researchers found that after three weeks on a high-fiber, low-fat diet and adding up to 60 minutes of daily walking, about half of the study participants reversed type 2 diabetes or a constellation of unhealthy risk factors called the "metabolic syndrome."

"Our study found that when an individual partakes in a fairly intensive diet and exercise lifestyle modification, that significant changes in their health can be noted in a short period of time," said one of the study's authors, Christian Roberts, an assistant researcher in the physiological sciences department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Most of the population is under the belief that it takes a long time to see improvement. But, we found that we could reverse diabetes and metabolic syndrome within three weeks, despite the fact that these men were still obese," he said.

Results of the study appear in the Jan. 10 online issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology.

"I'm glad that more and more people are getting the message out that you can make a difference with lifestyle changes. Even just 10 pounds of weight loss makes a huge difference in blood sugar, blood pressure and your overall well being," said Dr. Katherine Nori, an internist with Beaumont Hospital's Weight Control Center in Royal Oak, Mich.

Thirty-one men between the ages of 46 and 76 participated in the new study. All of the men were either overweight or obese. All of the volunteers had at least one risk factor for metabolic syndrome, and 15 were diagnosed with metabolic syndrome -- a collection of health risks including excess fat, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and insulin resistance. Thirteen of the men had type 2 diabetes. Several had neither condition.

For three weeks, the men took part in a residential diet and exercise program. Their diet was designed at the Pritikin Longevity Center and included 65 percent to 70 percent complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and whole grains), 15 percent to 20 percent protein (soy, beans, nuts and occasionally fish and poultry), and 12 percent to 15 percent fat (less than half from saturated fat).

The study participants were allowed to eat as much as they wanted of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, so Roberts said they weren't left feeling hungry.

Additionally, the men began exercising 45 to 60 minutes daily on a treadmill and did both level and graded walking. Roberts said the men walked at a moderate pace, which meant they could talk while exercising, but if they increased the intensity of their workout a little bit, talking became difficult.

The men lost about two to three pounds each week of the study, but they still remained overweight or obese at the end of the three-week period.

The researchers measured blood levels of cholesterol, insulin and markers of inflammation both before and after the study. At the start of the study, 48 percent of the men had metabolic syndrome, while at the end just 19 percent still did. Forty-two percent had diabetes at the start of the study, but only 23 percent did at the end. The average LDL, or "bad," cholesterol reading went down 25 percent.

"If you have diabetes or metabolic syndrome, you need to know that they are reversible, and you can improve your heart disease risk profile without normalizing your body weight," Roberts said.

Both Roberts and Nori said it was the combination of diet and exercise that affected these dramatic changes, and that neither measure alone is as powerful as the two together. And, both said you have to maintain the changes in order to sustain the health benefits.

"People have the power within themselves to make a difference. Weight loss and exercise consistently improve heart disease risk, and this is something you have control over. You have the ability to dramatically improve whatever level you're at," said Nori.

More information

The American Heart Association has more information on metabolic syndrome.

SOURCES: Christian Roberts, Ph.D., assistant researcher, physiological sciences department, University of California, Los Angeles; Katherine Nori, M.D., internist, Weight Control Center, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; Jan. 10, 2006, online edition, Journal of Applied Physiology

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