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Exercise to lower cholesterol

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Exercise can help to lower high cholesterol and keep cholesterol to healthy levels.

Exercise can also help with weight loss, which in turn helps to lower cholesterol.

Regular exercise also helps increase HDL (high density lipoprotein) 'good' cholesterol. This helps the body to move fatty deposits to the liver for disposal rather than these hanging around and blocking arteries.

The NHS recommends at least 150 minutes a week - about 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week - of moderate-intensity exercise to help lower cholesterol. Cholesterol lowering exercise includes walking, swimming and cycling - or any exercise that leaves you slightly out of breath.

Exercise is just one lifestyle factor to help manage blood cholesterol, a healthy diet is also important.

Seek medical advice before starting a new exercise programme.

How exercise lowers cholesterol

Researchers believe there are several mechanisms involved. First, exercise stimulates enzymes that help move LDL (low density lipoprotein)from the blood to the liver. From there, the cholesterol is converted into bile (for digestion) or excreted. So the more you exercise, the more LDL your body expels.

Second, exercise increases the size of the protein particles that carry cholesterol through the blood. The combination of protein particles and cholesterol are called "lipoproteins". It's the LDLs - low density lipoproteins - that have been linked to heart disease. Some of those particles are small and dense whilst some are big and fluffy. The small, dense particles are more dangerous than the big, fluffy ones because the smaller ones can squeeze into the linings of the heart and blood vessels and set up shop there. But now it appears that exercise increases the size of the protein particles that carry both good and bad lipoproteins.

How much exercise does it take to lower cholesterol?

Although the NHS has decided 150 minutes of exercise a week is needed for healthy cholesterol, exactly how much exercise is needed to lower cholesterol has been a matter of some debate.

A 2002 study by researchers at Duke University Medical Center in the US found that more intense exercise is actually better than moderate exercise for lowering cholesterol. In a study of overweight, sedentary people who did not change their diet, the researchers found that those who got moderate exercise (the equivalent of 12 miles of walking or jogging per week) did lower their LDL level. But the people who did more vigorous exercise (the equivalent of 20 miles of jogging a week) lowered it even more.

The people who exercised vigorously also raised their levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) - the 'good' kind of lipoprotein that actually helps clear cholesterol from the blood. Researchers found it requires a good amount of high intensity exercise to significantly change HDL and just a leisurely walk is not enough.

According to the findings, however, even though moderate exercise was not as effective in reducing LDL or increasing HDL, it did keep cholesterol levels from rising.

Therefore, some exercise is better than none; more exercise is better than some.

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