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Exercises to Control Your Cholesterol

What type of exercise is best for healthy cholesterol?
By
WebMD Feature

You’ve probably heard that exercise can help keep your cholesterol at a healthy level. But what kind of exercise? For how long, and how often? And how much of an impact can you really expect exercise to have on cholesterol levels?

If you’re exercising the right way, the answer to that last question can be “a lot,” according to Patrick McBride, MD, MPH, director of the preventive cardiology program and the cholesterol clinic at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Regular exercise affects your cholesterol and triglycerides in two main ways.

  • Exercise helps lower triglycerides, which at high levels are linked to coronary artery disease.
  • Exercise also raises your levels of HDL, or the “good” cholesterol.

“Consistent regular exercise can lower triglycerides by 30% to 40% and boost HDL by 5 to 8 mg/dL,” says McBride.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like exercise can lower your LDL (or “bad” cholesterol) levels -- unless by exercising you also lose a significant amount of weight. Still, lower triglycerides and higher HDL levels are both important to heart health, so what kind of exercise should you pursue to achieve these goals?

Mix It Up: A Variety of Exercises Help Control Cholesterol

The type of exercise you do is less important for cholesterol control than how often and how regularly you do it.

“Doctors used to believe it was only aerobic, endurance exercise that improved levels, but it turned out that we were wrong. A number of studies on resistance training have shown very powerful effects on cholesterol metabolism,” says McBride. “Especially if you do moderate strength training at high frequency -- circuit training with 10 reps each cycle and three cycles of each circuit -- you can get very nice improvements in your triglycerides and HDL.”

McBride says that most experts recommend a combination of three forms of exercise to get the most health benefit.

  • Aerobics to get your heart rate up
  • Strength training to build muscle
  • Flexibility exercises like stretching to keep you limber

“We really like it when people use variety, alternating endurance and strength training. Fitness means you’re strong, flexible, and have endurance.”

So don’t be too concerned about whether you’re walking or running, swimming or biking, lifting free weights or using weight machines. It’s all exercise, and it’s all good for your heart.

To Get Cholesterol Benefits, Just Do It

Whatever type of exercise you’re doing, you may believe you need to “feel the burn” to reap real benefits. That may be so for certain fitness goals, but it has nothing to do with improving cholesterol and triglycerides.

Fitness professionals often use the word “FIT” to summarize the three key components of exercise: Frequency, Intensity, and Time/Duration. For cholesterol health, it turns out that the F and the T -- the frequency and the amount of time spent exercising -- are the important elements. The I – for intensity -- isn’t nearly as important.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Is Your Cholesterol Level Heart Healthy?
What is your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level?

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Answer:
Desirable
0-199
Borderline
200-239
High
240+

Your level is currently

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal.

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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