Why Exercise Is the Secret Weapon to Lower Cholesterol

Will exercise lower cholesterol levels? Experts say absolutely.

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The fact that exercise has many health benefits beyond weight loss may not surprise you. But its impact on lowering high cholesterol just might.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all the cells in your body. There are two kinds of cholesterol in the blood: LDL considered is the “bad” cholesterol, which can build up and clog your blood vessels, and HDL is thought of as the “good” cholesterol, which helps clear the LDL from your arteries.

High cholesterol occurs when there is too much “bad” fat in the blood. (Here’s how high cholesterol affects your body.) Ideally, your LDL number should be less than 130. The good stuff, HDL, should be 60 or higher. Your total cholesterol number (depending on your HDL and LDL levels) should be less than 200. Triglycerides, another measure of fat in the blood, should be less than 150.

High cholesterol can be treated with medication, but not everybody with elevated cholesterol levels needs meds, especially off the bat. “You can definitely lower your cholesterol without medication—that’s for sure,” says Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, a clinical instructor in medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Not everybody is successful, but certainly with diet changes, with losing weight, with exercise, it is possible to lower your cholesterol.”

How Exercise Helps Lower High Cholesterol

“Exercise helps you have healthier cholesterol by building the levels of good cholesterol, HDL, which is the cholesterol that sweeps through the arteries and disposes of the plaque buildup by sending it to the liver to be released,” says Joan Pagano, an exercise physiologist in New York City.

Any movement can have a positive impact on cholesterol levels, but certain types of exercise fare better than others. “We want to see people doing all different kinds of activities, but really it’s the cardiovascular exercise, jogging, walking, spinning, Zumba—all the kind of stuff that makes you sweat and gets your heart rate up—that is what has that benefit on HDL cholesterol,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City.

In one study, Stanford University researchers compared the cholesterol levels of middle-aged male runners to sedentary men. The runners had significantly lower levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, and “bad” LDL cholesterol, and a higher concentration of “good” HDL cholesterol than their less active peers.

Along with working up a sweat and getting your heart pumping, it’s important to include some calming, stress-relieving exercises as well. “Every time you have a stress response, your body releases cholesterol into the bloodstream to prepare you for ‘fight or flight,’” says Pagano. Exercises like yoga, tai chi, or stretching can help do the trick. (Here are more ways yoga benefits the mind and body.) “Meditative movement of any kind, even gentle stretching, where you’re just clearing your mind and focusing on the stretches—will help reduce your stress levels so you’re not releasing cholesterol into the bloodstream,” Pagano says.

Lifestyle Tweaks for Lower Cholesterol

As beneficial as exercise is, to maximize your chances of improving your cholesterol levels without medication, you can’t forget the other key cholesterol-lowering lifestyle tweaks, like eating a produce-rich diet that minimizes bad fats, like saturated fat; managing your weight; and quitting smoking. Try these smart diet changes that can lower cholesterol levels.