Cholesterol Guide: Exercise Tips
Exercise can help lower triglycerides and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Combining exercise with diet and changing your eating habits can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Exercise seems to be a panacea for most diseases. That’s because, according to exercise physiologists, it’s medicine. It’s better than taking a pill. It’s free and has few side effects. And if you participate regularly, it can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and certain types of cancer. It can also make you feel better.
According to some studies, exercise also affects cholesterol levels and, when combined with a healthy diet, is often the first line of defense in controlling cholesterol and fat in the blood.
While the studies have had mixed results, exercise appears to have the greatest impact on HDL (“good” cholesterol). Regardless of the type or intensity of activity, levels increase. This is a good thing because HDL is a type of cholesterol that absorbs LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and carries it to the liver, where it is removed from the body.
A meta-analysis of the effects of exercise on cholesterol was published in 2014 in the journal Sports Medicine. The authors reported that HDL cholesterol increased by an average of 4.6%. However, more intense and prolonged exercise was required to lower LDL cholesterol. Total cholesterol was least affected by exercise and remained unchanged for most of the time.
Another study, the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, evaluated the long-term effects of physical activity on cholesterol levels in approximately 9,000 adults aged 45 to 64 years. The ARIC study involved patients in four communities across the country and was unique in that it included African-American men and women.
In the baseline study, participants were comparable in terms of age, LDL and total cholesterol. All were overweight or obese.
The study lasted nine years and the results showed differences by race and gender. All had improved HDL cholesterol; LDL levels decreased only in women, especially among African-Americans. Whites had decreases in triglycerides, but black women were the only ones to have decreases in total cholesterol.
What is the relationship?
The relationship between exercise and cholesterol is not clear. One theory is that exercise stimulates the development of enzymes that raise HDL, thereby increasing the liver’s ability to move LDL out of the bloodstream and excrete it. Another theory is that exercise increases the size of your bad cholesterol. At first glance, this sounded like a bad idea. But scientists now believe that small, dense LDL is more likely to enter the arteries, while large, fluffy LDL is relatively benign.
So far, the focus has been on aerobic exercise, but research suggests that strengthening exercises may also help. One interesting finding is that the number of repetitions may be as important, if not more important, than the weight lifted. For example, lifting 3 pounds multiple times has the same or greater effect than lifting 10 pounds.
Exercise can help improve your cholesterol levels, and it can also help you lose weight. Losing weight, especially around your height, is critical to preventing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome (a combination of risk factors including cholesterol and triglycerides).
Can exercise improve my cholesterol levels?
Doctors monitor three major cholesterol levels: triglycerides, HDL and LDL.
Exercise has the greatest effect on triglycerides by lowering them, and the greatest effect on triglycerides by increasing HDL, the good cholesterol.
Exercise has little effect on LDL, the “bad” cholesterol unless it is associated with a change in diet or weight loss.
Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. Do not engage in any activity that causes chest pain, excessive shortness of breath, dizziness or lightheadedness. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop immediately.
How can I start doing aerobic exercise to lower my cholesterol?
The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that you do aerobic exercise for most of the week. This type of exercise is repetitive and uses different muscle groups. Examples of aerobic exercise include bicycling, swimming, walking, ellipticals and step machines.
- Start slowly. If you are new to exercise, start with a small amount and gradually increase the amount of exercise. Start small and take your time! You can start with 15 to 20 minutes, or even less in some cases.
- Even if you break it up into several smaller activities throughout the day, try to keep your exercise to at least 30 minutes or more. Don’t forget to do warm-ups and cool-downs for about 5 minutes each. These times should be in addition to your 30 minutes.
- The best goal is to exercise for about 200 minutes per week. This can be achieved by exercising 30 minutes 7 days a week and 40 minutes 5 days a week.
- The amount of exercise should be moderate and slightly heavy so that you are not too out of breath during the conversation. However, you should be panting and singing uncomfortably.
What are the general tips for aerobic exercise to lower cholesterol?
- Drink water when you are thirsty to stay hydrated during your workout. Remember, in hot or humid conditions, you need to drink more water to stay hydrated.
- Wear comfortable clothes with sneakers or flat lace-ups. Wear supportive shoes to reduce the risk of orthopedic problems.
- Incorporate exercise into a healthy lifestyle and make it a habit to exercise at the same time every day.
- If it’s hot or humid, or if you don’t feel like you’re getting enough exercise, exercise right after a meal.
- Having a family member or friend join you can help you stay motivated. It can also help you commit to and stay on the path to a healthier lifestyle.
- Record your activities in a calendar or journal. Write down the type of exercise, distance and time, and how you feel during the activity. This will help you keep track of your progress.
- Use a variety of exercises to keep you interested. Try yoga, tai chi, Pilates or kickboxing. Join an exercise group, health club or YMCA. Many churches and senior centers also offer exercise programs.
- Look for opportunities to be more active during the day. These include walking to the mall before shopping, parking farther away than you need to, choosing stairs over escalators, and taking 10-15 minute breaks to watch TV or sit down to do other activities.
If you have to stop exercising because of illness or other reasons, remember that your body is adapting to any level of exertion. You may need to restart at a slightly slower pace than you did before the break.