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.
“While increased intensity can improve your cardiovascular performance, it also has a down side,” says McBride. “Particularly for middle-aged and older adults, it puts you at greater risk of injury. So for most people, we recommend moderate intensity activity of significant duration.”
What does that mean?
- Do at least half an hour of exercise, five to six days a week, if you’re really looking for the greatest benefit.
“It’s much better to do moderate intensity for 30 to 45 minutes than clutch the handle on the treadmill and get your heart rate up into the red zone for five or 10 minutes,” says McBride. “It’s really a myth that you have to get your heart rate up to benefit from exercise. You just have to do it.”
- When you climb on the elliptical trainer, set the resistance for 3 and the time for 45 minutes.
You may not be sweating as much as the guy next to you, but your cholesterol and triglycerides will be responding just as much as if you were climbing hills.
And, remember, exercise offers your body many more benefits than just cholesterol control.
“The effect of exercise on cholesterol is important, but the overall effects are more important,” says McBride. “You’re getting many other cardiovascular benefits: lowering your blood pressure, improving diabetes, and reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke. Exercise is really the right elixir.”