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The Basics: How Exercise Can Help Improve Cholesterol Levels

Good Cholesterol Need a Boost? Exercise May Help

By Lia Tremblay

Updated August 03, 2010

(LifeWire) - If you have high cholesterol, exercise may help you meet your cholesterol goals. You may already be taking medication and making healthy changes to your diet. You may have given up smoking and even replaced your daily donut with a bowl of oatmeal.

So why does everyone keep bugging you to exercise?

You may assume that it is because exercise promotes the loss of excess weight, which is not something you want to have when your cholesterol is high. This is true, but it is only part of the story. Even if you are already at a healthy weight, exercise should be a part of your plan for cholesterol management.

Exercise and Cholesterol

Regular physical activity, among its other benefits, has a number of positive effects on your cholesterol.

One major benefit is that exercise can drastically reduce your level of triglycerides, which is a form of fat that travels in your bloodstream. Just as exercise burns fat on your body, it burns up the fat in your veins as well; prolonged physical activity stimulates hormones, such as epinephrine, to begin breaking down triglycerides to fulfill energy demands. This is often the first and most extreme effect exercise can have on someone with a cholesterol problem.

Regular workouts can also boost the level of HDL, the "good cholesterol", in your blood. HDL is beneficial to the body because it is able to whisk cholesterol away from arterial walls and off to the liver, protecting against plaque buildup, a common cause of heart attack. For this reason, your HDL level is one cholesterol number that you actually want to increase. Higher levels of HDL also appear to go hand in hand with lower levels of triglycerides.

Finally, working out helps you shed any extra pounds. This can decrease your total cholesterol, including LDL (the "bad cholesterol"). LDL is the stuff that builds up on artery walls, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

But remember: Even if your exercise program never leads to weight loss, or even if you have no extra weight to lose in the first place, research shows that exercise can mean very good news at the next visit to your doctor.

How Much Exercise Will I Need?

Exercise does not need to be an enormous undertaking; workouts of less than an hour each day can make a significant difference. One study, in which the pooled results of 25 previous studies were examined, showed that when the more than 700 subjects exercised for 40 minutes a day, their HDL gains were significant enough to translate to a 5 to 7% drop in overall heart disease risk.

In this same study, conducted at the University of Tokyo, the minimum time spent exercising each week that was required to change HDL levels was 120 minutes. At 40 minutes per workout, this means you only have to carve out workout time three days each week to see a change.

In fact, researchers found thatworking out for a full 40 minutes was more important than how often or how hard the participants worked out. While daily workouts are best, there is no harm in taking a couple of days off. Just be sure to get at least 30 to 40 minutes of exercise during each workout, or extend them to an hour or more to get even better results.

What Kind of Exercise Should I Be Doing?

You do not have to break records for speed or strength when choosing your activity.

Because exercise should be a part of your regular routine, it is important to choose an activity that you will enjoy and stick with. Dancing, brisk walking, bicycling and even vigorous gardening -- anything that gets the heart rate up-- can all be great ways to enjoy the time you spend exercising. If you get bored with an activity, just switch to something else.

What is important is that you get moving and keep moving. Remember, the intensity of the workout does not matter as much as the duration of the exercise you are doing. In other words, your 30+ minutes a day are beneficial whether you spend them jumping over hurdles or walking the dog -- so do something you will enjoy on a regular basis.

How Soon Could I See Results?

In many studies, it took as little as 12 weeks to see an increase in HDL and a sharp drop in triglycerides. The most significant results in other measures, such as LDL,  were seen after 20 weeks or more, when notable weight loss had occurred.

In studies where the workout frequency was low (3 to 4 times a week, as opposed to 5 to 6 times a week), it took a few more weeks to see results. So while you do not have to make exercise a daily routine, doing so will lead to faster results at your next blood draw.

Here is a final note to get you going: At least one study found that the effect of exercise was faster and greater in the subjects with the highest total cholesterol (220 or more). That means the worse off you think you are, the more you may benefit from getting a move on.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Lia Tremblay is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in consumer health care. She lives and works in Virginia.

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