Does Exercise Help Manage Cholesterol?
Typically, we might hear that changing our dietary habits is the key to reducing bad cholesterol and to increasing good cholesterol. However, studies have shown that exercise also plays an important role in cholesterol management.
Combining proper nutrition and regular exercise is the key to healthy cholesterol numbers.
The research appears to disagree on whether the frequency or intensity of the exercise is important to improving cholesterol. However, the consensus lies in the duration of exercise.
From Kodama and colleagues’ review of over 25 studies, all seem to agree that regular aerobic exercise, performed for a longer amount of time per session, is what will lead to improvement in overall cholesterol levels.
What are HDLs and LDLs?
Before we dive in, let’s take a moment to talk about some of the key terms we’ll be using.
LDL – Low-Density Lipoprotein is what’s commonly termed “bad cholesterol.” High levels of this stuff are what put you at risk for cardiovascular complications.
HDL – High-Density Lipoprotein is what we like to call “good cholesterol.” This is what carries bad cholesterol and triglycerides to the liver in order to get rid of them.
Triglyceride – These come from the fats you consume. Like LDL, a high amount of triglyceride is also linked to cardiovascular disease.
What Can Exercise Do for Cholesterol?
A study on activity and cholesterol found that physically active individuals had lower levels of LDL and Triglyceride, and higher levels of HDL, than individuals who lived a sedentary (non-active) lifestyle.
The levels of activity among the participants were mixed. This means that low, moderate, and high intensity exercises all made a difference. This is great news for people who are afraid to start exercising for fear they aren’t “fit enough” to exercise. If this is you, read our post on The Common Misconception of Getting Fit Before Joining a Gym.
Exercises You Can You Do to Lower LDLs and Raise HDLs
Regardless of our suggestions, you should choose an exercise that you can comfortably do for extended periods of time. It may also be necessary to have your doctor monitor how your heart responds to any new exercise routine.
The American Heart Association recommends about 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week (that’s about 30 minutes a day if you’re working out 5 days a week), or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week.
You can mix and match different amounts of moderate and vigorous exercise. The idea is to aim for some amount of time in the AHA’s general ballpark and work your way to a level that feels good for you.
Aerobic exercises include activities like jogging, running, swimming, bicycling, dancing, and others that elevate your heart rate.
To effect cholesterol, one study suggests that an effective level of weekly exercise is approximately 17 to 18 miles of jogging at a moderate pace. If that’s too much, 11 miles is still effective but to a lesser degree.
If 30 minutes a day sounds a bit vague, this jogging recommendation may give you a more focused perspective on how much exercise you should aim for.
Low to Moderate Intensity Resistance Training
Resistance training may involve the use of objects, like dumbbells, or your own body weight to improve your muscle strength, tone, mass, or endurance. Examples include lifting free weights, bench press, deadlift, squats, lunges, and more.
A review conducted by Mann and colleagues investigates the effects of resistance training on cholesterol. Their findings suggested that low to moderate intensity workouts were just as effective as high-intensity workouts! More good news!
This type of exercise can be done independently to improve cholesterol or be paired with aerobic exercise.
Long story short:
- Regular exercise, performed for extended periods of time, is the big game changer
- Cardio and resistance training are shown to improve cholesterol
- It’s more about quality than quantity
To learn from our Registered Dietician, Debbie James, about how to lower cholesterol with the right food choices, read the answers to her Q&As on low carb and low fat diets and cholesterol friendly foods. To access our monthly blog post highlights, subscribe to our newsletter today!
- “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids.” Www.heart.org, 2018, www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults.
- Kodama, Satoru, et al. “Effect of Aerobic Exercise Training on Serum Levels of High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol.” Archives of Internal Medicine, American Medical Association, 28 May 2007, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/486847.
- Kraus, William E, et al. “Effects of the Amount and Intensity of Exercise on Plasma Lipoproteins: NEJM.” New England Journal of Medicine, 2002, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa020194#t=article.
- Mann, Steven, et al. “Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations.” SpringerLink, Springer International Publishing, 31 Oct. 2013, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-013-0110-5.
- Skoumas, John, et al. “Physical Activity, High Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol and Other Lipids Levels, in Men and Women from the ATTICA Study.” Lipids in Health and Disease, BioMed Central, 12 June 2003, lipidworld.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-511X-2-3.