Will exercise help my cholesterol levels?

There are three main cholesterol levels doctors monitor: triglycerides, HDL and LDL.

Exercise has the greatest effect on triglycerides by lowering them, and on HDL, the good cholesterol, by increasing it.

Exercise does not have much impact on LDL, the “bad” cholesterol unless combined with dietary changes and weight loss.

Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Do not engage in any activity that causes chest pain, excessive shortness of breath, dizziness or lightheadedness. Stop immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.

How do I start on a cholesterol-lowering aerobic exercise program?

The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that people exercise most days of the week in an aerobic fashion. This type of exercise is repetitive in nature and uses multiple muscle groups. Examples of aerobic exercises include cycling, swimming, walking, elliptical machines and step machines.

  • Start slowly. If you are new to an exercise program, start with a short amount of time, and slowly increase. Start low, and go slow! You could start out with 15 to 20 minutes, or in some cases even less.
  • Try to build up over time so that the exercise lasts at least 30 minutes, even if you have to split this up into several smaller activities throughout the day. Do not forget to include a warm-up and a cool-down consisting of about 5 minutes each. These periods are in addition to your 30 minutes.
  • The optimal goal is to achieve approximately 200 minutes per week of exercise. This can be accomplished by doing 30 minutes of exercise 7 days per week or doing 40 minutes of exercise 5 days per week.
  • The exercise should feel moderate to somewhat heavy so that you can still carry on a conversation without being too breathless. However, you should feel breathless enough to not be able to sing comfortably.

What general tips should I know about cholesterol-lowering aerobic exercise?

  • Stay well-hydrated during exercise by drinking water when you are thirsty, and remember that in hot or humid conditions you may need to drink even more water to maintain hydration.
  • Wear comfortable clothes with sneakers or flat shoes with laces. Wear shoes with good support so that you can reduce the risk of orthopedic problems.
  • Make exercise a regular part of your healthy lifestyle, and try to exercise at the same time of day so it becomes a habit.
  • Use caution when exercising right after meals, when it is very hot or humid, or if you do not feel up to exercising.
  • Ask family and friends to join you to help keep you motivated. This also can help them to start or continue on a road to a healthy lifestyle.
  • Note your activities on a calendar or in a record book. Record the type of exercise, distance/amount of time, and how you felt during the activity. This will help you keep track of your progress – and serve as motivation to keep going!
  • Use a variety of exercise to keep up your interest. Try things such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates or kickboxing. Join an exercise group, health club or the YMCA. Many churches and senior centers also offer exercise programs.
  • Look for chances to be more active during the day. Some examples would be walking the mall before shopping, parking your car farther away from your destination than necessary, choosing a flight of stairs over an escalator, or taking 10 to15 minute walking breaks while watching TV or sitting for some other activity.

If there is a break in your exercise due to illness or other factors, remember that your body adapts to whatever level of exertion is put on it. You might have to restart at a slightly slower level than before the break.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/17/2019.

References

  • American College on Exercise. Managing Cholesterol with Exercise. Accessed 3/13/2018.
  • American Heart Association. Get Moving: Tips to get active Accessed 3/13/2018.
  • Mann S, Beedie C, Jimenez A. Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z). 2014;44(2):211-221.

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