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Moderate Exercise Cuts Women's Risk of Gallstone Surgery

WebMD Health News

Sept. 9, 1999 (Seattle) -- A few hours of brisk walking, jogging, or bicycling each week can reduce a woman's risk for gallstone surgery, according to a study in the Sept. 9 New England Journal of Medicine. But the study shows that exercise alone doesn't seem to help women who are severely overweight.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who exercised at least two-and-a-half hours a week were about 30% less likely to need surgery for gallstones than women who didn't exercise. The researchers also reported that women who spent more than 41 hours a week sitting at work or in their cars were about 40% more likely to have gallstone surgery than women who spent fewer than six hours sitting.

"Essentially, we found yet another advantage of exercise," says Michael Leitzmann, MD, one of the study's authors. Leitzmann tells WebMD that although the results probably apply to men too, they are especially important for women, who are more likely than men to get gallstone disease.

One encouraging finding is that almost any type of exercise helps, Leitzmann says. "Protection was conferred not only by vigorous exercise activities, such as jogging, running, racket sports, and brisk walking, but also by nonvigorous activities, such as stair climbing," he says. Leitzmann says the benefits of exercise increased up to about five hours a week, then reached a plateau, suggesting that women don't need to engage in strenuous activities to protect themselves.

The study also found that women who were severely overweight did not benefit directly from exercise, says David Johnston, MD, a researcher at the University of New Mexico who wrote an editorial that accompanied the Harvard study. Johnston tells WebMD that exercise may have helped these women to lose weight and keep it off, which is one way to lower the risk of gallbladder disease. But exercise without weight loss didn't help, he says.

The study was conducted by looking at the health records of over 60,000 female nurses over a 10-year period. During that time, approximately 3,300 of the women had surgery for gallstone disease. The disease can cause severe abdominal pain and a variety of digestive problems.

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