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Controlling liver disease with extreme lifestyle changes

May 22, 2014

Jim Leak dramatically changed his sedentary lifestyle with the help of Duke Health and Fitness Center staff after being diagnosed with a serious liver disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH.

In 2011, Jim Leak, 68, received a diagnosis that he says “shook him to the core.” He felt fine – there were no warning signs or symptoms. But during a hospital stay for a bleeding ulcer, Jim learned he had nonalcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH, a serious liver disease characterized by the presence of fat in the liver that can lead to permanent organ damage.

Because there is no specific treatment or cure for NASH, Jim realized his only option to prevent it from worsening was to alter his lifestyle. He was obese and sedentary, with borderline diabetes and high blood pressure. “I knew I had to get a handle on my health,” says Jim. “This diagnosis really made me think about whether I was committed to making a change.”

With his wife Sandy by his side, Jim attended an introductory session at Duke Health and Fitness Center that included a meeting with a nutritionist and behavioral therapist, as well as an exercise evaluation. “The consultation was very helpful. They pulled all of the pieces together and got me on the right track,” says Jim. “I told myself, ‘you just gotta do it’.”

At his first exercise class, he was welcomed with open arms. “I walked in the first day and I knew half the people there,” says the retired banker and father of two. “There were former customers and people from church; it became a social event for me as well as exercise. And I’m a talker, so it made sticking it out that much easier.”

Jim has been at the Center regularly since that first visit, attending water aerobics classes or walking the track up to six times each week. An exercise physiologist meets with him regularly to discuss his health and monitor his blood pressure and pulse, giving him the structure he needs, he says. When his weight plateaued at 200 pounds, a Center nutritionist helped him push on to his current weight of 170.

“A critical point in deciding to go [to the Center] and staying there was the caliber of the staff,” says Jim. “I know I can schedule time with them if I need them and that’s reassuring.”

Although Jim’s liver condition will never be cured, he has achieved a new, healthier normal. “I am not better, but I am stabilized now,” he says. “My blood sugar and cholesterol are good. I went from obese to normal BMI, and my energy level and attitude are so much better. My sons are in Kenya and New York City – I don’t have any grandchildren yet, but I look forward to seeing and playing with them some day.”

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