Most people, even most doctors, assume that exercise helps lower cholesterol levels. The real answers to the question “Does exercise lower cholesterol?” are actually just beginning to emerge.
How does exercise lower cholesterol? Researchers are in general agreement that exercise helps you lower your cholesterol levels by reducing your fat mass, even if you don’t lose weight, although you may experience a temporary surge in cholesterol levels when you first begin to work out regularly.
Fat cells release their stores to the rest of the body in the form of cholesterol. When you are just beginning to shrink your fat mass, your cholesterol levels may temporarily go up.
How does lowering cholesterol with diet and exercise affect LDL and HDL? As cholesterol is burned for fuel, the size of cholesterol particles shrinks. Big, fluffy, potentially dangerous low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) is replaced by healthier, smaller high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) as muscles use the triglycerides captured in cholesterol for energy. Exercise also stimulates the liver to make bile, which carries some excess cholesterol to the stool to be flushed away when the bowels move.
What is the relationship between the type of exercise and cholesterol levels? The more intense the exercise, the greater the lowering of cholesterol levels. A study conducted in 2002 by researchers at Duke University found that among overweight people who did not change their diet, getting the equivalent of 12 miles (20 km) of walking a week lowered LDL somewhat. Getting the equivalent of 20 miles (32 km) of jogging every week lowered LDL a great deal more.
Raising HDL, on other hand, definitely requires high-intensity exercise. If you work out until you have exhausted your muscles’ store of glycogen-about 1200 calories-then your fat cells have to surrender VLDL cholesterol to keep you going. Really dedicated exercisers may reduce LDL by 10 to 15% and raise HDL by 15 to 20%.
More exercise is better than less, but you won’t be getting more exercise if you injure yourself. As important as getting enough intense exercise is doing exercises safely so that you do not suffer broken bones, torn tendons, bruises, or sprains. Ultimately, the best exercise for lowering cholesterol is exercise you can continue to do on a regular basis.