Exercise Beneficial for Overall Cholesterol Numbers

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 23, 2000 -- Losing fat was never simple. Unfortunately, it only becomes more complicated as we hear terms like 'HDL,' 'cholesterol,' 'LDL,' 'VLDL,' 'triglycerides,' and so on -- some of them good, some bad, and some ugly. Adding to the confusion, your doctor now gives you not just a cholesterol "number" but also numbers for these other compounds, and often one number is normal while another is high. So, what effect does exercising have on each of these components of fat metabolism?

A leading expert on physical fitness and its relationship to fat metabolism has summarized the scientific knowledge on this in the current issue of the American College of Sports Medicine's Health & Fitness Journal. According to this review, the following is a guide to the effects of each component on heart disease and whether exercise will be beneficial to the component in question:


Relation to heart disease

Effect of exercise


Strongly causative

May reduce


Strong protector



Strongly causative

Little or no change


Somewhat causative



Somewhat causative




Little or no change

Cholesterol and triglycerides are essential for health, but could lead to hardening of the arteries if higher than normal, says lead author Larry Durstine, PhD, professor and chair of exercise science at University of South Carolina, in Columbia. "Fortunately, many studies have shown that exercise helps return blood lipids to their normal range," he tells WebMD.

With aerobic training, triglycerides decrease 10-30%, and HDL increases 2-8 points, Durstine tells WebMD. "Weight training hasn't been shown to improve blood profiles but does help prevent falls and offset osteoporosis. So, if you're at risk for heart disease, consider these guidelines in starting an exercise program," he suggests.

  • Include exercise like walking, running, cycling, or swimming
  • Train moderately for 30 minutes, five days a week
  • Work toward burning 1,000 or more kilocalories a week
  • Supplement your routine with weight or resistance training

But, how do you get from where you are to where you should be? "Above all else, find a routine that you can stick with," says Paul Cacolice, ATC, CSCS, a clinical athletic trainer in Enfield, Conn. "Then talk with a personal trainer about making steady fitness gains over time."

  • Set short-term goals for the next two weeks, like longer sessions
  • Set long-term goals for the next six months, like burning more calories
  • Work out hard, but remain able to carry on a conversation
  • Increase your routine gradually, by about 3-5% a week


"You can use your body weight for resistance training, so you don't have to buy any expensive equipment, but you do need a few basic items to get started," Cacolice advises.

  • Wear shoes with a rigid heel counter for balance and stability
  • Drink from a bicycle-style water bottle to reduce abdominal cramping
  • Use a child's ball for wall squats, a lower body resistance exercise
  • Remember to include push-ups, an upper body resistance exercise

To reduce your risk of heart disease even further, combine regular exercise with a healthy diet, the authors advise.

Reducing dietary cholesterol can be fairly simple. "You don't have to omit foods that are high in animal fat, but consider your portion sizes and a wide variety of foods," says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director of nutritional therapy at Ohio's Cleveland Clinic and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Because even moderate changes can have a big impact." She suggests the following:

  • Select only low-fat or fat-free dairy products
  • Limit red meat servings to the size of a deck of cards
  • Increase intake of low-fat protein like poultry, fish, or soy
  • Include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Split restaurant entrées with a friend or take half home
WebMD Health News Reviewed by Aman Shah, MD on August 23, 2000
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