High blood cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia) affects hundreds of millions of people globally. While high cholesterol itself has no symptoms, it can become a significant contributor to heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke. If a blood test reveals that you have high cholesterol, there are drugs that your doctor can prescribe to lower your cholesterol; however, due to unpleasant side effects that the drugs may cause, many patients seek out other means of lowering their cholesterol levels. Fortunately, there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make that have been proven effective at lowering cholesterol, either in conjunction with medications or, in many cases, replacing the drugs altogether. One of these changes is exercise.
To understand how exercise can improve your cholesterol levels, first we need to understand what cholesterol is and what constitutes lowering it. Cholesterol is a waxy lipid (similar to a fat) which is produced by the liver and which your body actually needs for certain functions. This only becomes a problem when there is excess cholesterol building up in your arteries. Perhaps you’ve heard of LDL (low-density lipoproteins AKA “bad cholesterol”) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins AKA “good cholesterol”); these are combinations that the body puts together to transport cholesterol through the blood. The reason LDL is called “bad cholesterol” is because it transports cholesterol to arteries (among other organs), whereas HDL is called “good cholesterol” because it transports cholesterol back to the liver where it can be disposed of. When someone wants to improve their cholesterol levels, their goal is to lower their LDL, increase their HDL, or both.
A couch-potato lifestyle is a major risk factor for developing high cholesterol to begin with, so if that describes you, adding exercise to your daily routine is an important step. If your cholesterol is high despite the fact that you already exercise in some way, increasing your exercise routine in either duration or intensity is still a great way to improve cholesterol levels. Aerobic exercise (such as jogging), even at moderate levels, has been shown to increase HDL, and more intense exercise, including resistance training (exercise that aims at increasing muscle strength), has been shown to lower LDL. If your goal is to lower your cholesterol through exercise, aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise per day at least five days a week. If you can manage to do even more than that, you can expect to see commensurate improvements in your cholesterol levels. Of course, you should consult with your doctor before starting any new major exercise regimen.
In addition to increasing your exercise levels, you may have heard recommendations for “heart-healthy” dietary changes–another potentially effective lifestyle change you can take to improve your cholesterol levels. However, if making the appropriate dietary changes is challenging, studies have shown that exercise can improve your cholesterol even without changing your eating habits. It can certainly be challenging to make many lifestyle changes at once, so it’s good to know that taking steps to improve your cholesterol levels does not have to be all or nothing.
- Zapata-Lamana R, Cigarroa I, Diaz E, Saavedra C. (2015). Resistance exercise improves serum lipids in adult women. Resvista Medica de Chile 143(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26005814
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- World Health Organization https://www.who.int/gho/ncd/risk_factors/cholesterol_text/en/
- American Heart Association https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol
- National Institute of Health https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/high-blood-cholesterol https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/heart/chol_tlc.pdf