Exercise has many healthy benefits. Not only can it keep your weight down, build up muscle, and reduce your risk of certain diseases, exercising regularly also has beneficial effects on the heart -– and your cholesterol levels. But exactly how does exercise affect your cholesterol?
Unfortunately, the mechanism is still not very clear. While there have been studies examining the effects of exercise on cholesterol, these studies have also been coupled with other cholesterol-lowering factors, such as a healthy diet or weight loss. Because all of these factors can have an impact on cholesterol, researchers are not exactly sure how much of a contribution exercise makes to lowering your cholesterol. However, more recent studies examining exercise alone reveal a couple of ways that exercise may be lowered by cholesterol:
- Lipoprotein particle size: Some studies have shown that exercise can affect the size of your lipoproteins, or the component that carries cholesterol in the blood. Smaller lipoproteins, such as small, dense LDL, have been associated with causing cardiovascular disease. However, moderate exercise can increase the size of these particles, reducing your risk. In one study, a 12-week endurance exercise program reduced small, dense LDL by up to 17%.
- Reverse cholesterol transport: A few studies in mice have suggested that exercise can enhance the transport of cholesterol from the rest of the body to the liver, where it will eventually be expelled from the body.
- Absorption: A few studies have shown that 8 to 12 weeks of endurance exercise may slightly reduce the absorption of cholesterol from the small intestine into the blood. The amount of cholesterol made by the liver does not appear to be affected by exercise.
Although researchers are still trying to determine exactly how exercise affects your cholesterol, the bottom line is clear: moderate exercise has favorable effects on all aspects of your cholesterol profile. Current studies suggest that moderate exercise can reduce LDL cholesterol 5 to 10%, whereas HDL cholesterol can be raised by between 3 and 6%. Although this may not seem like much, combining exercise with other lifestyle changes can help keep your cholesterol levels -- as well as the rest of your body -- healthy.
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Wilund KR, Feeney LA, Tomayko EJ, et al. Effects of endurance exercise training on markers of cholesterol absorption and synthesis. Phyiol Res 2009;58:545-552.
Wilund KR, Feeney LA, Tomayko EJ, et al. Endurance exercise training reduces gallstone development in mice. J Appl Physiol. 2008 Mar;104(3):761-5.