Exercise and Cholesterol: How Much Is Enough?

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on April 22, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

Exercise is great for you from head to toe. It makes your heart stronger, and it's a powerful way to lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and boost your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Here’s what you can do to make a difference.

What Type Is Best?

Cardiovascular exercise

Aerobic exercise is a champ for improving cholesterol.

Walking, jogging, swimming, and bicycling are all good choices. If you like going to the gym, try the treadmill, elliptical machine, or step machine. Or take a class that's fun and motivating, like Zumba or step.

Doing something you enjoy, whatever it may be, helps you stick with it longer.

Strength training

You may also want to try resistance training. It’s great for building lean muscle and strength, and may improve your lipid profile, says John Higgins, MD, a Houston sports cardiologist.

Try lifting weights or using resistance bands. For the best results, make it progressive, which means as you get better and stronger, you should bump up the amount of weight or the number of repetitions.

The more calories you burn, the more you cut bad cholesterol and raise the good kind. -- John Higgins, MD

How Much?

Try to exercise on most days.

Plan to work out at least three times a week. Five to 7 days is better. Work toward a total of 150 minutes or more.

Go for a total of 30 minutes or more each day.

How long you spend working out makes a difference in how much your HDL level goes up. Aim for 30 minutes or longer each day.

If you don’t have a large chunk of time for exercise, break it up into smaller, 10- to 15-minute increments. Just be sure it adds up to 30-45 minutes by the end of the day.

For instance, you could walk your dog for 15 minutes in the morning and then add a 15-minute walk or bike ride, or some other activity that you enjoy, says Paul B. Langevin, MD, an anesthesiologist at Philadelphia's Hahnemann University Hospital.

Keep track.

You can also keep track of how many steps you take. Shoot for a total of 10,000 or more steps every day, Higgins says. Use a pedometer or smartphone app to help you stay on track.

How Hard?

Try to work out at a moderate intensity. That means breathing more heavily than usual, but not so much that you can’t have a conversation.

Your target heart rate should be in the 50% to 80% zone, which means about 50-80 percent of your maximum heart rate. For a 40-year-old, that would be a target heart rate between 90-144 bpm.

“There is some evidence that more intense or vigorous workouts may have more of an effect on raising HDL levels,” Higgins says. So running a 10-minute mile is better than a 12-minute pace for boosting good cholesterol.

But for lowering LDL cholesterol, the amount of time you spend exercising may be more important than how intense your workout is, Higgins says.

You can follow this simple rule: “The more calories that are burned, the greater the reduction in LDL and increase in HDL cholesterol,” Higgins says.

Changes You’ll See

Your LDL and HDL levels will improve.

Exercise can lower your LDL cholesterol up to 15% and raise your HDL level up to 20%.

You’ll see a difference after a few months.

You’ll see changes in your LDL level after just 3-6 months of exercising regularly. It takes longer to see a difference in HDL. Most studies show it takes an average of 9 months, Higgins says.

If you do high-intensity training, you may see improvements in HDL levels sooner, possibly in as little as 8 weeks, Higgins says.

Even though you’re working out, you don’t get a free pass to eat poorly. “Avoid the all-too-common misconception that, ‘Because I worked out today, I can eat whatever I want,’” Langevin says. You may wish it was true, “but alas, it isn't!”

Remember: Exercise plus a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet is better than either one alone.

Show Sources


John Higgins, MD, associate professor of medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; chief of cardiology, Lyndon Baines Johnson General Hospital; sports cardiologist, Memorial Hermann Healthcare System.

Paul B. Langevin, MD.

Kodama, S. Archives of Internal Medicine, May 28, 2007.

Cleveland Clinic: “Cholesterol Guide: Exercise Tips.”

American Heart Association: “Taking Care of Yourself.”

University of Michigan Health System: “Older and stronger: Progressive resistance training can build muscle, increase strength as we age.”

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