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Exercise for Chronic Liver Disease

If you suffer from liver disease, exercise is the probably last thing you want to do. Here’s why you should force yourself to get up and go.

When it comes to liver malfunction and disease, an early symptom and one of the chronic debilitating effects is fatigue – the kind that makes getting out of bed a major effort and leads many doctors to recommend bed-rest as part of the care plan for their suffering patients. Despite the pronounced lack of energy, depression and doctor’s orders that may be keeping you on the couch, a little physical exertion can actually be beneficial to your condition. In fact, there is a growing body of research that points to exercise as a valuable tool in the management of acute and chronic liver disease.

More and more physicians are recognizing the value of exercise for their liver patients, and point to improvements in quality of life and better prognoses as reasons to recommend regular exercise as part of their treatment program.

The following liver benefits have been shown in research to be associated with regular exercise:

  • Reduced risk of scarring and cirrhosis in Hepatitis C – Regular exercise reduces the incidence of obesity in HCV patients. Research shows that avoiding obesity helps prevent the resulting conditions – fatty liver, elevated blood glucose, diabetes, and elevated blood insulin – that lead to scarring and cirrhosis.
  • Elevated mood – Depression is a common problem amongst people suffering from chronic liver disease and can even be a side effect of their treatment, such as the pegylated interferon treatments prescribed for HCV patients. Regular exercise helps alleviate the depressive effects by stimulating the release of endorphins and modulating neurotransmitter levels to promote a sense of well-being and strength.
  • Enhanced blood oxygenation – The cardiovascular benefits of regular exercise enhance the oxygen carrying capability of the blood. More oxygen in the blood means more oxygen delivered to the liver, which creates a higher functioning liver.
  • Reduced atrophy – Strength-training supports muscle growth and maintenance which can prevent or delay the severe muscle wasting seen in advanced liver disease.
  • Improved energy – Over time, regular exercise improves the efficiency of the cardiovascular system. This improves delivery of oxygen and nutrients to all cells, tissues, organs and systems, which leads to a higher energy level.

What To Do

According to Dr. Melissa Palmer, a specialist in treating liver disease, an exercise program that includes aerobic/cardiovascular conditioning and strength training will have the greatest effect on liver function. Aerobic exercises like walking, bicycling, jogging and swimming will improve your cardiovascular system’s ability to oxygenate your blood and deliver it to the liver and the rest of the body. Strength training helps maintain bone mass, increases muscle strength and mass, and helps prevent weight gain through elevation of the metabolism.

How To Do It

  1. Step 1: Start slow. If you have advanced liver disease and/or have not exercised in a long time, you are deconditioned and must exercise on a level that will demand exertion from your body but will not overtax the system. This could be as light as a brief walk (5, 10 or 15 minutes), or wall pushups and curling two soup cans.
  2. Step 2: Get help. A fitness professional who is aware of your condition and experienced in creating “special needs” fitness programs will help you design a program that will help you safely begin restoring your strength and fitness and will allow you to increase the demands as your energy levels and vitality return.
  3. Step 3: Stick with it. Progress may be slow and painful in the beginning. But even a metabolism challenged by chronic disease can respond and grow with consistent effort. Give it a month and see how you feel. Then give it two more. At the end of three months you will be feeling, stronger, healthier and a little more positive about life in general.

What Else?

There are very few conditions in life which cannot benefit from regular vigorous exercise. Chronic liver disease is no exception. The key is to listen to your body, work within your capabilities while trying to expand them, and use the guidance of your physician as you implement your new lifestyle.

Support your body’s ability to tolerate the physical demands of regular exercise by:

  • Eating primarily fresh whole foods, cooked at home.
  • Avoid alcohol, sugars and any drugs not prescribed by your physician.
  • Keep well hydrated every day.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Protect and assist your liver by supplementing your diet with a well-designed liver support complex.
  • Maximize the benefit from your exercise regimen and support healthy metabolic function by adding antioxidant and essential fatty acid formulations to your nutritional supplement regime., Hepatitis C, Diet, and Exercise, Retrieved May 27, 2014, WebMD, LLC, 2005-2014., Exercise and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Keating, SE, et al, J Hepatol 2012 Jul;57(1):157-66, Retrieved May 27, 2014, National Library of Medicine, 2014., Exercise and Liver Disease, Ritland, S, Sports Med 1988 aug;6(2):121-6, Retrieved May 27, 2014, National Library of Medicine, 2014., Hepatitis C and Exercise, Retrieved May 27, 2013, Life Beyond Hepatitis C, 2012-2013., The Effect of Exercise on Liver Function, Jackie Lohrey, Retrieved May 27, 2014, Demand Media, Inc., 2010.

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About the Author

Peter G. Roy, DC, CFT

Dr. Peter Roy graduated from the National University of Health Sciences as a Doctor of Chiropractic in 1990 and began his career in private practice shortly thereafter. He received his certification as an Industrial and Occupational Health Specialist from the Northwestern College of Chiropractic. During his career, Dr. Roy received hundreds of hours of post-doctoral training in nutrition. He has 22 years of experience in private practice and spent 10 years as an independent health consultant to medium and large corporations in the New York City metropolitan area. He has lectured extensively on weight-loss and nutrition to businesses and their employees, and has coached collegiate and amateur athletes as well as individual patients in the principles of nutrition, fitness and physique transformation. He is a member in good standing of the International Sports Science Association, is a Certified Fitness Trainer and a trained specialist in Kettlebell fitness instruction. He lives in New York with his wife, Beth and their young son, Luke.

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