Your blood has two types of cholesterol: LDL, which is considered “bad” because it can clog your arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke. HDL, on the other hand, is considered “good” cholesterol because it helps remove LDL from your body. The American Heart Association (AHA) advises people to aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week to lower LDL cholesterol levels, along with other lifestyle changes like eating a healthy diet (5). But what types of exercise are best for lowering cholesterol? How often, and how long, should you work out? Let’s take a look at some of the best exercises for lowering cholesterol, according to experts. We’ll also go over other ways to manage your cholesterol levels.
How Does Exercise Lower Cholesterol?
First, let’s understand how fatty substances like cholesterol move through your body. Cholesterol is manufactured in the liver and gotten from food, then carried in the bloodstream by lipoproteins.
There are two types of lipoproteins (6):
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein): Also known as “good” cholesterol, HDL picks up excess cholesterol and returns it to the liver where it’s broken down and removed from the body.
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein): Also known as “bad” cholesterol, LDL deposits cholesterol in the arteries where it can form plaque, a sticky substance that narrows the arteries and makes it difficult for blood to flow.
A sedentary lifestyle (defined as limited physical activity and long periods of sitting) lowers HDL cholesterol which means there’s less “good” cholesterol to remove the “bad” LDL cholesterol from arteries. This can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis, in which plaque buildup narrows the arteries and makes it difficult for blood to flow (2).
Exercise helps reduce LDL cholesterol in several ways (3):
- It helps the body break down and remove LDL from the bloodstream.
- It encourages the liver to produce more HDL cholesterol.
- It helps reduce inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
- It helps you lose weight, which can also help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
The AHA recommends that people with high cholesterol levels get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (like jogging or running) per week, preferably spread out over several days (5).
However, any exercise is better than none, and even small amounts of physical activity can have benefits for cholesterol levels.
In one study, sedentary adults who increased their level of moderate-intensity exercise to 150 minutes per week saw a significant decrease in LDL cholesterol levels after 12 weeks (3).
The AHA also recommends adding strength-training to your exercise routine two or more days per week (9). Strength-training helps increase muscle mass, which can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
Read More: The Best Low Cholesterol Soups To Make This Winter
6 Of The Best Exercises To Lower Cholesterol
What are some of the best exercises for lowering cholesterol? Below are six workout ideas to get you started.
Walking might seem too easy to be an effective workout, but it actually offers a number of benefits for heart health. Walking is a low-impact form of aerobic exercise that can help lower LDL cholesterol levels, improve HDL cholesterol levels, and reduce inflammation (7).
To start a walking program, gradually increase your walking speed and distance over time. Aim for a brisk pace that makes you breathe harder but doesn’t make it difficult to carry on a conversation. Most people should be able to walk at this pace for 30 minutes or more.
Running Or Jogging
Regular running or jogging is an excellent way to improve cholesterol levels. It also offers a host of other benefits, including improved heart health, increased lung capacity, and better mental health (8).
If you’re new to running, start slowly with short distances and gradually increase your pace and distance over time. You can also alternate between walking and running to make the workout more manageable.
Cycling is another great aerobic workout for heart health (1). It’s low-impact, so it’s easy on the joints, and it can be done indoors or outdoors.
Riding outdoors is more enjoyable as it allows you to take in the scenery. This may have added mental health benefits, as being in nature has been linked to reduced stress and improved mood.
Indoor cycling classes are also a great option if you want the structure of a workout class. These classes typically involve riding a stationary bike at different speeds and intensities to music.
Your joints will thank you for choosing swimming as your workout. That’s because swimming is a low-impact form of aerobic exercise that puts minimal stress on the joints. It’s also a great workout for the heart and lungs (11).
Swimming is a great option if you have arthritis or other joint issues that make other forms of exercise difficult. It’s also a good choice if you’re pregnant or overweight, as the water supports your body weight and takes some of the strain off of your joints.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT is a type of exercise that alternates between short bursts of high-intensity activity and periods of rest or low-intensity activity. HIIT can be done with any type of exercise, but is often done with running, biking, or rowing.
HIIT is a great option if you’re short on time, as it’s a very efficient way to get in a workout. HIIT has also been shown to be more effective than moderate-intensity exercises at improving cholesterol levels (4).
In addition to aerobic exercise, the AHA recommends strength training two or more days per week (9). Strength-training helps increase muscle mass, which can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
Strength-training can be done with free weights, weight machines, or resistance bands. If you’re new to strength-training, it’s a good idea to start with bodyweight exercises or simple equipment and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts as you get stronger.
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7 Tips For Getting Started With Exercise
If you’re not used to exercising, it can be tough to get started. These seven tips can help make the process easier:
Set Realistic Goals
Start by setting small, achievable goals. For example, aim to walk for 30 minutes five days per week. Once you reach your goal, you can gradually increase the intensity or duration of your workouts.
Find An Activity You Enjoy
If you don’t enjoy the activity you’re doing, you’re less likely to stick with it. Choose an activity that’s fun for you, such as hiking, dancing, or playing tennis.
Make It Convenient
Choose an activity that’s conveniently located and easy to fit into your schedule. If you have to drive out of your way or go out of your way to fit in a workout, you’re less likely to do it.
Get A Workout Buddy
A workout partner can help you stay motivated and accountable. Choose someone who has similar fitness goals and schedule.
Join A Class
Taking a class can make working out more enjoyable and motivating. It’s also helpful to have someone there to give you instruction and feedback.
Invest In Quality Gear
When you have quality gear, it’s more enjoyable to exercise. Make sure you have comfortable shoes and clothes that fit well and are appropriate for the activity you’re doing.
Set Aside Time For Recovery
It’s important to listen to your body and give yourself time to recover after a workout. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet.
Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. By incorporating exercise into your routine, you can lower your LDL cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Read More: 7-Day Meal Plan To Lower Cholesterol: A Beginner’s Guide To Eating For Heart Health
Dietary Changes To Lower Cholesterol
The phrase you can’t outrun a bad diet is true when it comes to cholesterol. No matter how much you exercise, if you’re eating an unhealthy diet, your cholesterol levels will be high.
Your body naturally produces all the LDL cholesterol you need. Eating foods containing certain fats triggers your body to produce more LDL cholesterol which may have negative consequences.
Saturated fats and trans fats are the main dietary culprits when it comes to raising LDL cholesterol levels. Understanding the different types of fats and where they’re found can help you make better choices when it comes to food.
Saturated fats get their name from the fact that they’re saturated with hydrogen atoms. This makes them solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are found in animal products, such as meat, poultry, and dairy. They’re also found in some plant-based oils, such as coconut oil and palm oil.
Eating too much saturated fat can raise your LDL cholesterol levels. The AHA recommends that you limit your saturated fat intake to no more than 5-6% of your total daily calories (10).
Trans fats are created when manufacturers add hydrogen to liquid oils to make them solid. This process is called hydrogenation. Trans fats are often found in processed foods, such as cookies, crackers, and fried foods.
Trans fats are the worst type of fat for your cholesterol levels. The AHA recommends that you limit your trans fat intake to no more than 1% of your total daily calories (10).
To find the amount of saturated and trans fats in a food, check the nutrition label. The label will list the total fat content as well as the saturated and trans fat content. Other names for trans fat include partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and vegetable shortening.
Unsaturated fats are either mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated. Mono-unsaturated fats have one double bond between carbon atoms, while poly-unsaturated fats have more than one double bond.
Mono-unsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, and peanut oil. Poly-unsaturated fats are found in corn oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring are also good sources of poly-unsaturated fats.
Eating unsaturated fats in moderation can help lower your LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, the AHA recommends that you replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats (10).
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Tips For Limiting Saturated And Trans Fats
If you’re trying to lower your LDL cholesterol levels, it’s important to limit your intake of saturated and trans fats. Here are some tips for reducing your saturated and trans fat intake:
- Choose lean meats: When buying meat, choose lean cuts, such as chicken breast or pork loin. Trim the visible fat before cooking.
- Choose low-fat dairy products: When buying dairy products, choose low-fat or fat-free options, such as skim milk or fat-free yogurt.
- Limit processed foods: Processed foods, such as cookies, crackers, and fried food, are often high in saturated and trans fats. Limiting your intake of these foods can help reduce your LDL cholesterol levels.
- Maintain a whole-foods diet: A diet rich in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, is lower in saturated and trans fats than a diet that includes processed foods.
- Read nutrition labels: Nutrition labels list the total fat content as well as the saturated and trans fat content. Checking nutrition labels can help you make better choices when it comes to food.
The Bottom Line
Exercise can help lower LDL cholesterol levels. However, it’s only one part of a larger picture. A healthy diet and lifestyle are also important for managing cholesterol levels. If you’re concerned about your cholesterol levels, talk to your doctor. They can help you develop a plan to improve your cholesterol numbers.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Association of Cycling With All-Cause and Cardiovascular Disease Mortality Among Persons With DiabetesThe European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study (2021, jamanetwork.com)
- Atherosclerosis: Process, Indicators, Risk Factors and New Hopes (2014, nih.gov)
- Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations (2013, nih.gov)
- Effects of high-intensity aerobic interval training vs. moderate exercise on hemodynamic, metabolic and neuro-humoral abnormalities of young normotensive women at high familial risk for hypertension (2010, nature.com)
- Getting more exercise than guidelines suggest may further lower death risk (2022, heart.org)
- Introduction to Lipids and Lipoproteins (2021, nih.gov)
- Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis (2015, nih.gov)
- Leisure-Time Running Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk (2014, nih.gov)
- Strength and Resistance Training Exercise (2018, heart.org)
- Summary of American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations Revision 2006 (2006, ahajournals.org)
- Take the plunge for your heart (2009, harvard.edu)