Cholesterol and exercise are being studied to see what the actual, positive effects may be. The association between high cholesterol levels and the incidence and severity of coronary heart disease (CHD) is very pronounced. Approximately 38 percent of Americans have excessively high blood cholesterol levels. Recent studies have indicated that a 1% reduction in a person’s total serum cholesterol level yields a 2 to 3% reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease.
That sure sounds like a decent return to me. If it can be shown that cholesterol and exercise are directly related in a positive way, there will be one more good reason for us to exercise.
There is a variety of environmental and personal factors that may influence a person’s cholesterol composition such as:
- level of body fat
- dietary intake of fat, cholesterol and carbohydrates
- alcohol consumption,
- cigarette smoking
- menopausal status
Because of complex interactions among these variables, it is difficult to assess how each of these factors independently affects cholesterol levels and composition.
Does Cholesterol and Exercise Really Fit?
Aerobic fitness and exercise programs such as walking, jogging, and aerobics have been encouraged as a means to reduce total cholesterol, reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), and reduce triglycerides while elevating the “good” high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C). Here’s what we do know:
- Although total cholesterol levels are lower in persons with high aerobic fitness compared to low aerobic fitness, it has not been conclusively demonstrated that exercise training lowers total cholesterol.
- It has been shown that endurance exercise consistently lowers triglycerides.
- Moderate and high intensity aerobic exercise training appears to be associated with elevated HDL-C values.
- In addition to aerobic training, there are a few studies suggesting that resistance training may also improve cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol and Exercise – How To Make It Work
For many people with cholesterol disorders the first choice of therapy is dietary modification. If LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) is high enough, dietary therapy is often supplemented with cholesterol-lowering drug therapy. Exercise is of tremendous benefit when used in combination with either of these two forms of therapy. For those who maintain a frequent and sufficient level of exercise, it is possible that their physician will reduce their cholesterol-lowering medication and in some cases stop it altogether.
The Bottom Line
Prevailing evidence supports the concept that physical activity can help slow the progression of CHD. The independent effect of exercise type (aerobic vs resistance training) on total cholesterol, HDL-C, LDL-C, and triglyceride levels is not fully confirmed. A major exercise effect on blood cholesterol levels appears to be an increase in HDL-C as a result of aerobic training. This change is very important because HDL-C is the most critical determinant of CHD.
It seems to me that even though the evidence isn’t conclusive yet, we can probably add some additional items to the benefits side of regular exercise. If you need any more reasons to motivate you to regular exercise, lowering cholesterol and exercise looks like another good bet.