Dramatic decreases in risk for chronic disease were seen in as little as six weeks after participants in a BYU study made basic changes to diet and exercise.

Factors like cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose that can lead to chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes all improved with education and a sensible game plan, according to research by Brigham Young University professor of exercise science Steven Aldana and health sciences professor Ray Merrill.

"Our paper shows if people adopt a healthy lifestyle, very rapid improvements in risks occur in a very short amount of time," Aldana said.

The study was published recently in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Everyone seems to know that exercise and a healthy diet make a difference, Aldana said, but knowing and doing often don't go together. Realizing it takes so little time to see results may help.

For the study, 337 volunteers ages 43 to 81 completed a 40-hour educational course over four weeks, where they learned about basic exercise, diet and nutrition.

The "Coronary Health Improvement Project" lecture series focused on a diet with lots of grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables — "foods

closer to their natural form, less processed, less high-fat dairy, high-fat cheeses and high-fat red meat," Aldana said, along with a 30-minute-a-day cardiovascular exercise program that centered on walking.

Those who adopted what they learned saw dramatic results, Aldana said.

"After six weeks, we saw large and significant improvements in cardiac health risks: Cholesterol improved with around a 25 percent reduction. Blood pressure improved dramatically. Blood glucose for those who are insulin sensitive (considered a pre-diabetic indicator) improved somewhat. And at eight weeks out, they lost a lot of weight."

Which diet or exercise itself was less important than focusing on and actually living healthy choices, said Aldana, who has written a book on the health impact of lifestyle choices, titled "The Culprit and the Cure."

"What Aldana and Merrill have proven is it doesn't take heroic changes over many months and years to see the benefits of a healthy lifestyle," said Tim Butler, health management analyst with IHC Health Plans, who looked at the results. "We see in a statistically significant way changes showing up in as little as six weeks."

Butler said Americans will spend nearly $1.8 trillion on health care, 70 percent of that to treat and manage chronic disease. "To the extent we can reduce those risks and the prevalence of chronic disease," it will create not only much better health, he said, but also have great economic impact.

"The health-care system, already strained with an aging population, now has to deal with a population that is sedentary and obese, does not generally eat a healthy diet and has chronic conditions earlier. How are we possibly going to pay for that?" Butler said.

"And isn't it unfortunate if we end up faced with that difficult choice when three-fourths could have been prevented with basic lifestyle regimens" shown by the research, he said.

Researchers included BYU graduate students and health-care professionals from Illinois.

Health improvements were dramatic

BYU study participants:

Changed their diet to include more grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables and less high-fat dairy products and red meat.

Engaged in walking-centered exercise for 30 minutes each day.

They saw dramatic improvements in:

Cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose and weight loss.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com