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High cholesterol is an important risk factor for heart disease. Since high cholesterol doesn’t have any symptoms, the only way to know your cholesterol levels is to have a cholesterol screening, also called a lipid panel. Understanding cholesterol—including your “bad” LDL, “good” HDL, triglyceride, and total cholesterol levels—is the first step to taking control of your cholesterol. The second step is to make lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol so that you don’t need to go on cholesterol medication.

The most important lifestyle changes for lowering your cholesterol are eating a heart-healthy diet, reducing your stress, and starting an exercise regimen. Cardiovascular exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, increases “good” HDL cholesterol and improves your total cholesterol levels. Higher-intensity cardio exercise lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Strength training, also known as resistance training, or lifting weights, improves muscle strength and body composition. Here’s a look at the basics around lowering your cholesterol through exercise, including how it works, how much you need, and how you can get more of it.

Does exercise burn off cholesterol?

Exercise doesn’t exactly “burn” excess cholesterol like it burns fat. According to a literature review in the journal Sports Medicine, scientists aren’t yet clear on why exercise lowers cholesterol, but they believe that it may improve the body’s ability to utilize fats rather than carbs for energy, effectively lowering the levels of fats, including cholesterol, in the blood.

Strength training is also very effective for lowering cholesterol, especially for people who can’t do cardio exercise due to mobility issues. A 2019 study found that people who lifted weights for a total of one hour per week, but didn’t engage in any cardiovascular activity, enjoyed a 40 to 70 percent lower risk for heart attack or stroke than those who didn’t lift. Resistance training, like cardio, may lower cholesterol levels because it causes the muscles to burn fat. Both types of exercise also help you reduce your body mass index, or BMI, another important risk factor for high cholesterol and heart disease.

Although your overarching goal for exercising is to lower your cholesterol, regular exercise also leads to weight loss, healthier hair and skin, better mental health, and improved overall health. 

How to lower your cholesterol with cardio

Research shows that moderate-intensity exercise increases “good” HDL cholesterol, which helps remove the “bad” LDL cholesterol from your body. But it doesn’t have much of a direct effect on LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. However, high-intensity cardio exercise lowers LDL and triglyceride levels.

Moderate-intensity vs. high-intensity cardio exercise

So, how do you know what’s moderate-intensity and what’s high-intensity exercise? You can figure it out two ways—the easy, less-accurate way or the more complicated, but more accurate, way.

The easy way to know the intensity of exercise is to try talking and singing. If you can have an easy conversation while you’re walking, it’s low intensity. If you can talk in partial sentences but have to catch your breath every few words, you’re working at moderate intensity. If you can’t sing more than a few words without catching your breath, you’re working at high intensity.

The more complicated way to determine your intensity is to calculate your maximum heart rate, or MHR, by subtracting your age from 220. A 54-year-old, for example, will have a MHR of 166. 

  • For moderate-intensity exercise, your target heart rate (THR) should be between 64 percent and 76 percent of your MHR. So the 54-year old’s lower-end THR is 106, and the higher-end THR is 129. 
  • For high-intensity exercise, your target heart rate should be between 77 percent and 93 percent of your THR. So the 54-year-old’s lower-end THR is 128, and the higher-end THR is 154.

A wearable heart rate monitor will display your heart rate as you exercise to help you stay in the target heart rate zone for the duration of your workout. Although heart rate monitors you wear on your wrist are fairly accurate, chest-strap monitors are more accurate—but not as comfortable.

Moderate-intensity cardio exercises

The Centers for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week to reduce your overall risk of disease. That’s just 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Boost that to 40 minutes—or even an hour—and the benefits increase. 

A wide range of activities are considered to be moderate-intensity cardio, which means you have a lot of different options for getting in your aerobic exercise. Mixing it up helps combat burnout and boredom, and different activities involve different body movements and muscle groups, ensuring you get the most body-wide benefits from your workout. 

These are just 10 of the many moderate-intensity exercises you can try:

  • Walking briskly at a pace of about 4 mph
  • Heavy cleaning, such as vacuuming, mopping, and cleaning the tub.
  • Bicycling on flat or slightly hilly terrain
  • Playing doubles tennis
  • Yoga
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Dancing
  • Recreational swimming
  • Kayaking on calm water
  • Yark work like raking the lawn, bagging leaves, digging, hoeing, and mowing

High-intensity cardio exercises

As an alternative to moderate-intensity exercise, the CDC recommends at least 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise each week to reduce overall risk of disease. That’s just 25 minutes of exercise three days a week. The longer your workout, the better the benefits.

High-intensity cardio also encompasses a variety of activities, including these 10:

  • Hiking
  • Walking at a pace of 5 mph
  • Jogging at a pace of about 6 mph
  • Shoveling dirt or snow
  • Carrying heavy loads, such as unloading your car after a Costco run
  • Bicycling at a speed of 10 mph or biking up steep hills
  • Karate and other martial arts
  • Playing basketball, soccer, football, or singles tennis
  • Swimming laps
  • Jumping rope

How to lower your cholesterol with resistance training

Resistance training encompasses any kind of exercise wherein your muscles have to overcome an oppositional force. This includes weightlifting, of course, but also yoga and resistance-band or kettlebell training. 

When it comes to resistance training, research shows that moderate-intensity workouts appear to have a stronger effect on lowering cholesterol than high-intensity workouts. Intensity for strength training is calculated the same way as for cardio. Moderate-intensity strength training should raise your heart rate to between 64 and 76 percent of your maximum heart rate.

What seems to impact cholesterol levels more than increasing the amount of resistance is increasing the duration of the workout. The Centers for Disease Control recommends at least two days of strength training each week, but three days is ideal for those trying to lower their cholesterol. At least three days of strength training each week is also optimum for weight loss.

What kinds of strength training should you do to lower cholesterol?

Resistance training comes in several forms, but the two most common are weightlifting and floor exercises. Whichever you choose, you’ll do a certain number of repetitions, or “reps”—usually 10 to 12 of them—then rest for one to two minutes before doing another “set” of 10 to 12 reps.

How to lift weights

If you belong to a gym, you can use free weights (like hand-held dumbbells) or weight machines. If you don’t have a gym membership, you can purchase hand weights to use at home. Here’s how to get started lifting weights:

Choose the right weight to start with

Find the weight that you can lift 10 to 12 times in a row so that the first half of the set is fairly easy, but the second half is more difficult. The last two reps in the set should be very difficult to lift—you’ll feel your muscles burning, and may feel inclined to vocalize your discomfort with a little groaning, and that’s okay!

Rest between sets

For each weightlifting exercise, complete three sets of 10 to 12 reps. Between each set, rest for one to two minutes.

Recover between sessions

Allow 48 hours between sets to let your muscles recover. If you do your upper body one day, and your lower body the next day, you can do your upper body again the following day.

How to do floor exercises

Floor exercises use your own body weight as resistance. These include sit-ups, push-ups, planks, lunges, and squats.

Use the same principles for these resistance exercises that you use for weightlifting, but rather than a prescribed number of reps per set, do as many reps as you can do before your muscles won’t let you do any more. Do three sets, resting for one to two minutes between sets. As with weightlifting, allow your muscles to rest for 48 hours—you can do upper body one day and lower body the next, then upper body again the following day, and so on.

Yoga as resistance training

Yoga is an effective form of resistance training, and it has additional benefits that weightlifting and floor exercises don’t offer to the same degree. Yoga helps improve your balance and flexibility, and the meditative component of many forms of yoga, which encompasses focus and breathing, helps reduce stress and anxiety. An additional benefit is that you don’t need to wait 48 hours between sessions.

How to stay motivated to move?

If you’ve been sedentary for some time, starting an exercise routine may feel daunting or intimidating. Not everyone loves exercising, but when you’re faced with the choice of either getting a move on or risking catastrophic health consequences, exercising anyway is important. 

If you’re dreading the prospect of daily workouts, here are some ways to get—and stay—motivated and make exercising something you look forward to:

Set goals

If it’s been a minute since you had a regular exercise routine, start by setting goals, writing them down, and tracking your progress. Goals can be things like “work up to an hour-long walk five days a week” or “hold a plank position for two minutes,” or “run a 5K in six months.” A fitness tracker helps you keep track of your daily, weekly, and monthly progress toward your goals, displayed in charts. 

Choose exercises you enjoy

If you don’t enjoy walking, but you love swimming or biking, then swim or bike. Choose exercises you find enjoyable—hiking, gardening, rollerblading, boxing. Join a softball or soccer league, take a hip-hop or ballroom dancing class, visit your local climbing wall, or learn how to geocache.

Find a fitness buddy

Working out with a friend makes the time go faster, and it’s easier to get motivated to exercise when you know someone else is counting on you to show up. You and your fitness buddy can help keep each other motivated and accountable, and you can celebrate together when you reach your goals.

Get a dog

If you’re afraid you won’t be able to stay motivated for your daily walk, a dog may be all the motivation you need. Dogs need to be walked whether or not you feel like doing it, so your fur buddy will be your workout pal to keep you company—and hold you accountable with sad puppy eyes. 

Make a playlist, or download an audio book

Music is a great motivator, so load up a “walking” or “weightlifting” playlist of your favorite tunes to play while you’re on the move. Audiobooks and podcasts are also great to listen to while you exercise—you may find yourself exercising more frequently or for longer periods of time just so you can hear what happens next.

How Forward can help you lower your cholesterol and heart disease risk

As your primary care provider, Forward helps you maintain optimal health and manage diseases and conditions through a holistic approach to healthcare. Membership includes full access to features like our doctor-led healthy heart program, which includes genetic and blood testing, a range of risk assessments, and a personalized plan for reducing your risk factors for heart disease—including high cholesterol. Goal-setting, ongoing health marker monitoring, and assessments help you keep track of your progress, and our member app provides 24/7 access to your care team, your test and assessment results, and your overall progress. 

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