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Nutrition & Exercise

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Factor in Fitness to Fight High Cholesterol

Regular exercise can help control cholesterol

By: Laura Flynn McCarthy

Reviewed By: Kerry Prewitt, M.D., FACC

Get fitExercising regularly can make you feel better in numerous ways, including:

  • Giving you more energy during the day and helping you sleep better at night

  • Boosting your mood and thinking power

  • Helping you control your weight and simply have more fun

  • Controlling high cholesterol.

It’s not just aerobics that helps the heart, either. Researchers have long known that aerobic exercise (such as running, swimming or brisk walking that gets your heart pumping faster) helps lower total cholesterol and raise high-density lipoproteins (HDL, or “good” cholesterol). But newer research indicates that strength training and mind/body stretching-type exercises may also help keep your cholesterol levels in healthy zones.

The aerobic advantage

Any exercise that gets your heart rate up, makes you breathe a little faster, and brings color to your face and sweat to your brow can help your cholesterol levels. Aerobic exercise may lower total cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) slightly, but its best effects tend to be in raising HDL cholesterol and lowering triglycerides.

In fact, just one aerobic workout can produce an increase in HDL levels and a decrease in triglyceride levels. These changes last for only up to 48 hours or so, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), so you need to exercise at least every other day.

Aim to burn off an extra 1,200 to 2,000 calories per week, or about 300 to 500 calories per exercise session. For most people, this translates to doing about 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity activity daily — including brisk walking or walk-jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, or even housework such as vacuuming or mopping. You don’t have to do it all at once; if you can’t find a long block of time, do three to six 10-minute spurts of exercise.

What kind of results can you expect? Regular aerobic exercise can increase HDL levels up to 22 percent and decrease triglyceride levels up to 37 percent, according to the ACSM. If you burn 1,500 or more calories per week doing aerobic exercise, you could reduce your total cholesterol levels by 10 to 20 percent at the end of 16 weeks, the American Council on Exercise notes.

Muscle moves

Some studies indicate that working out with hand weights, resistance tubing or bands, or doing muscle-strengthening exercises such as sit-ups, push-ups and leg squats, may help lower cholesterol levels and improve the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol. What is known for sure is that resistance training just a few days a week improves your overall muscle strength and endurance, and that means you may be more likely to exercise without getting winded or tired as easily.

To maximize benefits while minimizing risks of overuse, look for a program that includes 8 to 10 different exercises that work your upper and lower body, as well as the chest and back. Push-ups, biceps curls and triceps extensions are good for upper body; abdominal crunches and torso twists strengthen the core; and leg presses, hamstring curls, squats and lunges are great to tone your lower body. People under age 50 should aim to do 8 to 12 repetitions using enough resistance to cause fatigue. People over age 50 should do more repetitions (10 to 15) with slightly less weight or resistance to minimize the risk of injury, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Mind/body bonuses

Exercises that encourage gentle stretching and focusing on breathing, such as yoga and tai chi, may not only improve your cholesterol levels, but also clear your mind, enhance your balance and strengthen your whole body. A recent review of 32 studies on yoga performed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that yoga helps reduce blood pressure, body weight, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. In one of the studies, people who took a four-day yoga program then practiced yoga at home saw their LDL levels and triglycerides go down and their total cholesterol fall 30 milligrams/deciliter on average after 14 weeks.

The ideal workout for your mind, body and especially your heart may well be a combination of all of these types of exercise. The bonus? Mixing up your exercise lessens the likelihood that you will overuse any one body part and get injured, and also minimizes boredom, which may make you more likely to stick with your exercise program. Try going for a brisk walk one day, lifting weights the next and taking a tai chi or yoga class the third day.





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