Overweight and obese patients can significantly improve sleep apnea by losing approximately 10% of their body weight—but even a strict diet-and-exercise program is unlikely to eliminate the condition.

These findings emerged from two separate studies examining the effect of weight loss on sleep apnea. In the first study (Arch Intern Med. 2009;169:1619-1626), 264 obese men and women with type 2 diabetes were assigned to either a behavioral weight-loss program developed specifically for obese patients with type 2 diabetes (intensive lifestyle intervention [ILI]) or to three group sessions related to effective diabetes management (diabetes support and education [DSE]).

By the one-year mark, ILI participants had lost significantly more weight than the DSE group (23.8 lb vs. 1.3 lb) and experienced a much higher remission rate of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) (13.6% in the ILI group vs. 3.5% in the DSE group).

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In the second study (J Clin Sleep Med. 2009;5:409-415), investigators learned that although a strict diet-and-exercise program could benefit obese patients with mild-to-moderate sleep apnea, this intervention is unlikely to eliminate the condition. The research team evaluated 10 middle-aged adults (mean age: 42.3 years) with mild-to-moderate OSA who completed a 16-week program consisting of a very low-energy diet and a supervised exercise schedule that included both aerobic and resistance training.

At the 16-week assessment, patients had a significant weight loss (12.9% of total body weight from baseline) and were more physically fit, but improvements in the apnea-hypopnea index was small and not proportional to the degree of weight loss.