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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.

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