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How does exercise affect liver health?

Key Takeaways

  • Exercise and alcohol are opposites when it comes to liver fat.
  • Drinking alcohol stops the β-oxidation process, causing your body to accumulate more liver fat. If you’re a drinker and do not exercise, this fat buildup is compounding.
  • Physical activity speeds up β-oxidation, helping you burn off liver fat, faster.

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For drinkers' health, liver fat is enemy number one. If you have just three drinks a day or 21 drinks a week, then there is a 90% chance you already have fatty liver disease. In fact, one in four people in the United States already have fatty liver disease. To understand how liver fat accumulates, we need to know how metabolism processes work in your body.

Metabolism in your body serves three purposes:

  1. Converting food into energy 
  2. Converting food to macromolecules, the building blocks that run cellular processes (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates) 
  3. The elimination of waste

How alcohol affects your liver: 

A significant role of your liver is to act as a filter when substances like alcohol enter the body. So, when you consume alcohol, it's easy for your liver to store fat. Not only does alcohol increase the number of calories you're consuming, but your body shuts down all other metabolic pathways to focus on metabolizing the alcohol through a process called Beta oxidation (β-oxidation).

 β-oxidation is a metabolic process by which fatty acid molecules are oxidized in the mitochondria and break down to produce energy. Drinking alcohol decreases this process.

Alcohol doesn’t just pause the fat metabolism in your liver; it can cause a person’s liver to create more cholesterol and fat, making it more difficult for a person’s body to access the stored fat for energy. 

How exercise affects your liver:

Exercise, on the other hand, works oppositely to alcohol. When you exercise, β-oxidation acts as the “gas pedal” of how the liver catabolizes incoming fatty acids and those stored in liver cells. Not only does it increase the number of calories that you're burning, but it also burns liver fat through this β-oxidation pathway.

Earn your drinks: 

As a general rule of thumb, aim to burn as many calories through exercise as you drink in alcohol.

Researchers in the most extensive study to examine the effects between physical activity (PA) and NAFD found that even “low volumes” of PA between 1–2 hours a week experienced liver health increases (hepatic benefit). The most significant improvements occurred when people exercised at least 150+ minutes per week, and at a high enough intensity to increase their VO2 max (which is a key fitness measurement as it examines the amount of oxygen you can utilize during exercise).

If you want a healthy liver, you don’t have to give up drinking entirely. You do, however, need to make sure you’re offsetting the alcohol consumed by exercising regularly. 

Want to dive deeper?
Read our long-form article on this topic.