If your cholesterol numbers aren’t where they ought to be, working out should be a key part of your strategy to get healthy. The right kinds of workouts, done regularly, can raise levels of heart-protecting HDL cholesterol and drop dangerous triglyceride levels. By losing fat and building muscle, your numbers can really improve.
What Kind of Exercise Will Help?
Research points to a combination of aerobic and resistance training as the best plan for reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease. In one study of overweight and obese participants published in BMC Public Health, researchers found that engaging in both types of exercise conferred greater benefits for weight loss, fat loss, and cardiorespiratory fitness than either cardio or resistance alone.
How Much Exercise Do You Need to Cut Cholesterol?
To improve cholesterol levels, as well as lower your blood pressure and risk for heart attack and stroke, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends an average of 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity three or four times a week. For overall cardiovascular health, the AHA suggests at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise — or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise — per week. You can mix up moderate and vigorous activity if you’d like.
- Walking briskly (3 miles per hour or faster)
- Bicycling (10 miles per hour or slower)
- Playing tennis (doubles)
Examples of vigorous-intensity exercise include:
- Racewalking, jogging, or running
- Swimming laps
- Playing tennis (singles)
- Aerobic dancing
- Bicycling (10 miles per hour or faster)
- Hiking uphill
Add Resistance Training For Heart Health
Also known as strength training, resistance training uses machines, free weights, bands, or your own body weight to build muscle. Adding muscle increases your metabolic rate, so you’ll burn more calories even when you’re at rest. The AHA recommends strength training at least twice a week for heart health.
Aim for more reps, not more weight as you get stronger because that’s been shown to have a greater benefit on lipids [cholesterol levels].
If you’re not familiar with the moves, take a class or work with a professional trainer first to avoid injury and get the maximum benefit.
Once you’ve worked up to a stable exercise program, you should see improvements in your HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in about a month. But exercise alone won’t significantly drop your LDL cholesterol levels. For that, you also need to alter your diet; in particular, avoiding saturated fat, the kind found in marbled red meat and full-fat dairy products.
Even though reducing your LDL is beneficial, research on whether it has an effect on overall longevity is still inconclusive. For now, eating a balanced, healthy diet that's rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains — based on the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate — is the most reasonable approach.
How to Start an Exercise Habit to Lower Cholesterol
Don’t leap straight from your couch to the running track. “f you’ve been sedentary, particularly if you have risks for heart disease, get your doctor’s okay before you start exercising.
While the AHA frequency guidelines point to good outcomes for people who are trying to shift their cholesterol numbers, people who are just beginning to work out should aim for even more sessions: five or six days a week. In the beginning, frequency really counts.
How to Keep Exercise Up to Get Cholesterol and Heart Disease Risk Down
Here are some great ways to stay motivated include:
- Keeping your goals realistic. If you expect to lose a lot of weight through exercise, or you reach healthy cholesterol levels quickly, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment — and end up dropping out.
- Making exercise social. Having the support of family or a friend helps you keep going. Numerous apps can also link you to other exercisers.
- Being flexible. If you can’t make it to the gym or the weather is forcing you to stay in, work out in your living room.