Exercising with High Cholesterol

Being overweight is a leading risk factor for high cholesterol. The good news is that regular physical activity will help with both weight loss and lowering cholesterol. Exercise can actually increase your HDL (good) levels while lowering your LDL (bad) cholesterol. You’ll be happy to know that you don’t need to spend countless hours in the gym to achieve the heart-health benefits of getting active. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.

What the Research Shows
  • A 2001 study involving patients with high cholesterol showed improvements in HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels after just 12 weeks of following an exercise program. On average, subjects experienced a 4.6% increase in HDL, a 5.0% decrease in LDL, and a 3.7% decrease in triglycerides.
  • Even moderate activity, if done daily, can make a difference. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared the amount and intensity of exercise and their effects on cholesterol levels. The highest amount of weekly exercise had the most effect. In other words, improvement was related to the amount of activity and not to the intensity of exercise.
  • In the same study, participants lost little weight, but their cholesterol levels did decrease. This shows that heart-healthy changes can occur inside your body before any benefits are seen on the outside. So if you’re discouraged by not seeing weight results, you can still be motivated by the fact that you continue to get healthier!
Convinced yet? Hopefully you are. Remember that exercise is important for so many reasons, from weight maintenance to overall health. But how do you know where to start?

Exercise Tips for People with High Cholesterol
A safe exercise program can help you conquer cholesterol once and for all. Now that you're committed to start a heart-healthy exercise program, here are a few tips to help you start off on the right foot.
  • Always talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program. Underlying health conditions, such as uncontrolled blood pressure, can make certain types of exercise unsafe for you. This is also true if you are on medications that affect your heart rate. Read and follow the guidelines in "Exercise Safety Tips for Beginners" before you start.
  • If you are new to exercise or haven’t been active in awhile, start slowly and increase your workout time and intensity as you get stronger. A good starting point is 20 minutes of aerobic activity, 3 times per week. Examples include walking, swimming and biking. The best activities to do are the ones you enjoy and will stick with. Eventually, the goal is to work up to 45-60 minutes, 5 times per week. It is also important to let your body warm up and cool down gradually during each exercise session (5-10 minutes each).
  • For those who have no other medical complications, strength training is safe and can provide many benefits. A good starting point for strength training is 5-10 exercises, performed 2 times per week. The Fitness Resource Center has examples of exercises and workouts that are easy to follow and require minimal equipment.
  • Listen to your body. Push yourself hard enough to get a good workout, but not too hard. The Talk Test is a good indication of proper intensity. If you can answer a question but not comfortably carry on a conversation at the height of your workout, you’re exercising at a good intensity level.
It's never too late to start an active lifestyle. No matter how old you are, how unfit you feel, or how long you've been inactive, research shows that starting a more active lifestyle now—through consistent, moderately intense activity—can make you healthier and improve your quality of life. Increasing your overall activity, even in ways you wouldn’t think of as exercise, also boasts big benefits.