Exercise May Stem Gallstones

A new study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine says exercise may help women prevent gallstones. CBS This Morning Health Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy reports.

The study found that two to three hours per week of recreational physical activity like running, jogging, playing tennis, doing calisthenics or walking briskly reduced the risk of gallstones by 31 percent.

The research, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, showed that it didn't matter if women engaged in vigorous exercise such as running or moderate exercise like brisk walking to get the benefit. Increasing the amount of exercise increased the benefit and getting no exercise at all increased the chances of developing stones.


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Gallstones develop in the gallbladder, a small organ that provides digestive juices to the small intestine. Most gallstones form when a chemical imbalance causes cholesterol to crystallize into stones, which cause problems if they become too big or block the ducts that feed the small intestine.

Gallstones can be as small as grains of sand. Many people may not even know they have them because in most cases, they do not cause symptoms and require no treatment. However, a gallstone can also become as large as a golf ball, and cause serious problems that can be fatal. Every year, half a million Americans have gall bladders removed because of gallstones.

The main symptom of large gallstones is an intense building continuous pain in the abdomen that can last for hours and may spread to the right shoulder blade or the back. Nausea and vomiting may accompany the pain. Symptoms of gallstones that migrate to the bile duct, as they sometimes do, are discolored urine, jaundice and fever or shaking chills.

Gallstones affect one in ten people in this country, and are twice as common in women as they are in men. The chance of developing them increases with age, and being overweight is a risk factor because that increases cholesterol in the blood. A diet high in fat and sugar is also a risk factor, but sudden weight loss due to dieting or fasting can also result in gallstones.

Surgery is the standard treatment for gallstones. The procedure involves removing the gall bladder entirely, since we can survive without it. There are also drugs that can dissolve the stones, but since the stones usually redevelop, surgery is the usual course of action.

The operations and hospitalization cost more than $5 billion a year, and the problem is the most common and costly digestive disease requiring hospitalization, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The reearchers, led by Dr. Michael F. Leitzmann, looked at 60,290 women who were ages 40 to 65 in 1986 and had no history of gallstone disease. The women filled in surveys every two years about their activity.

Overall, women who exercised about 30 minutes a day cut their risk of gall bladder surgery by 31 percent.

Obesity increases the risk of gallstones, as does rapid weight loss. But even after the researchers took obesity and recent weight changes into account, the exercisers were still 20 percent less likely to undergo gall bladder surgery.

Reported By Dr. Bernadine Healy