There are lots of terrific reasons to exercise. It can lower your blood pressure, help your mental health and improve your sleep. But it's also a means to help reduce your cholesterol levels.
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When your body has too much cholesterol (a fatty substance in your blood), it can affect your heart health, says the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). If you have high cholesterol, changing your diet is one important way to help lower your cholesterol, it says. Cholesterol-lowering medications and weight loss may also be needed. But exercise — or more movement in general — is another crucial step in reducing your cholesterol.
Read more: Does Exercise Lower Cholesterol?
How Does Exercise Lower Cholesterol?
When you exercise — be it a longer workout session or even a few minutes of brisk walking — you begin to cause positive changes in your body, says Salim Virani, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and staff cardiologist at the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Center, both in Houston.
One of these changes is that your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol — also called your "bad" cholesterol — can be lowered. At the same time, exercise can raise your HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or good cholesterol. Good cholesterol helps to remove the bad cholesterol from your body, notes the American Heart Association (AHA).
Additionally, your triglycerides — a type of fat in your blood that is measured during cholesterol checks — also decline with regular exercise. In fact, if someone has high triglycerides and begins to exercise regularly, their number may go down by as much as about 20 percent, Dr. Virani says. Your HDL and LDL numbers may edge 5 to 10 percent lower after a few weeks of regular exercise.
Your total cholesterol number may have a modest decrease due to regular exercise. This overall number, when used along with your specific HDL, LDL and triglyceride levels, provides a clear picture of your overall heart health and your risk for heart disease, Dr. Virani says.
If you are using exercise to help reduce cholesterol, you'll likely see a difference in your numbers within a range of 4 to 12 weeks. Dr. Virani likes to obtain a new cholesterol reading at six to eight weeks.
What’s the Best Exercise to Reduce Cholesterol?
If you're worried that you'll need to engage in one specific type of exercise to lower your cholesterol, don't worry. "A lifestyle with regular physical activity is more important than one particular exercise," Dr. Virani says. That means you can pretty much do what you enjoy, be it:
- Brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles an hour)
- Swimming or water aerobics
And there are many other choices according to the AHA. You should aim to find something that you enjoy and can fit into your life regularly.
How Much Exercise Do I Need?
The amount of time you spend exercising is more important than your exercise choice. Most adults should aim for 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of moderate physical activity each week or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise, per guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
If you already meet these recommendations but still need to lower your cholesterol further, you could increase the amount of time spent exercising and add some weight-resistance training, Dr. Virani says.
If it's hard to fit in a larger block of exercise time each week, break it into smaller chunks. This could mean parking your car farther away at work or at the store so you have to walk more, or taking brief brisk walks after meals. These kinds of small changes add up to benefit your health over time, Dr. Virani says. Small bursts of movement are especially important if you are otherwise sedentary. They also contribute to your overall physical activity throughout the day or week.
More Exercise Tips to Lower Cholesterol
To make exercise even more effective:
- Always combine physical activity with a good diet to lower your cholesterol, advises Cleveland Clinic.
- Discuss your exercise plans with your doctor, especially if you are new to physical activity. Activity guidelines are different if you are older than 65 or are pregnant, according to the NHLBI.
- Consider making exercise a family activity, so you're more motivated to stay active, adds NHLBI.
- Salim Virani, MD, PhD., professor, Baylor College of Medicine, cardiologist
- Michael E. DeBakey Medical Center, Houston
- AHA: “Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol”
- AHA: “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids”
- NHLBI: “Physical Activity and Your Heart”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Physical Guideline Activities for Americans, 2nd Edition”
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "High Blood Cholesterol"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Cholesterol-Lowering Exercise Tips"