If you're trying to reduce your "bad" cholesterol level — low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — you've probably been told to get plenty of aerobic exercise. Along with that, consider including weight training in your fitness program to improve your cholesterol levels and, ultimately, your heart health.
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Exercise and Cholesterol
An important part of improving your cardiovascular health and preventing heart disease is reducing the cholesterol in your blood, specifically the LDL cholesterol that clogs arteries and can put you at risk for heart disease, heart attack and other health problems, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Increasing your HDL (the "good" cholesterol) can actually help because HDL carries cholesterol back to your liver so it can be flushed out of your body.
If you're like many Americans, you've been told that your LDL is too high and that you should take steps to reduce it — by limiting saturated fat in the food you eat and by increasing physical activity, according to the CDC.
In years past, the main focus of that physical activity has been on aerobic exercise, also called cardiovascular conditioning or simply "cardio" — the kind of exercise that gets your heart pumping faster, such as running, jogging or cycling. But there may be good reason to incorporate weight training into an exercise program for high cholesterol.
What the Research Says
A research analysis published in February 2014 in Sports Medicine found weight training very effective for reducing total and LDL cholesterol along with body fat. This finding is good news for those who can't do cardio because of physical limitations.
Other research, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in March 2019, found that participants who did weight training, independent of aerobic activity, had a 40 to 70 percent lower risk for heart attack or stroke than did those who didn't do weight training. It didn't take a huge investment of time to reap the benefits — just an hour a week.
Also, a study published in July 2019 in JAMA Cardiology showed that, while both cardio and weight training reduced fat around the heart, only weight training reduced a certain kind of fat, called pericardial adipose tissue. Though this particular study didn't look at long-term health outcomes, reducing pericardial adipose tissue may have heart-healthy benefits.
The Bigger Picture
Keep in mind that weight training is just one part of an overall health strategy. Many other factors can affect your cholesterol and your heart health.
"Trying to lower cholesterol is a common goal that can best be addressed with a combination of medications, nutrition and physical activity — cardiovascular and resistance training," says Edward M. Phillips, MD, founder and director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.
"Resistance training has myriad health benefits, one of which may be improving lipid levels," says Dr. Phillips. "From a lifestyle medicine perspective, we would look at the individual's pattern of health behaviors, such as exercise, sleep, nutrition, substance use and relationships, and their overall life and health goals, and then tailor recommendations to their abilities, interests and desires."
Ideally, try to include both weight training and aerobic exercise in your fitness program — the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends a combo of muscle-strengthening and moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity.
Walking, running, dancing, gardening and other activities you enjoy can count as cardio, and a fitness trainer can help you create a program for your needs and goals. Talk to your doctor before you get started if you haven't been active in a while.
Know, too, that reducing your cholesterol isn't the only benefit of a more active lifestyle. You're likely to feel better physically and mentally as you become more fit, and you'll be setting a good example for your family.
- Sports Medicine: “Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations”
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: “Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality”
- JAMA Cardiology: “Effect of Aerobic and Resistance Exercise on Cardiac Adipose Tissues: Secondary Analyses From a Randomized Clinical Trial”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “LDL and HDL Cholesterol: The Bad and Good Cholesterol”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Preventing High Cholesterol”
- Edward M. Phillips, MD, founder and director, Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School, Boston
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"