You’ve probably seen the ads about controlling cholesterol with medication and wondered, “Is it possible to reduce cholesterol with diet and exercise?”
We asked experts in nutrition, exercise science and fitness to find out, and the answer is yes! Being active and eating smart can help manage cholesterol.
“Elevated cholesterol used to be blamed specifically on dietary consumption of foods which are high in cholesterol like meats, dairy products, eggs, etc.,” explains Kimberly Duffy, RD (registered dietitian), personal trainer and co-owner of Strength in Nutrition, LLC in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Now we have found that it is the overall quality of diet and lifestyle which affects cholesterol levels. Genetics also plays a role to some degree, but through diet and lifestyle changes, it is possible to ameliorate the [numbers] even with a genetic predisposition for elevated levels. HDL, or ‘good’, cholesterol levels can be increased through exercise – specifically cardiovascular activities – as well as increased intake of a plant-based diet.”
Exercise and Cholesterol Reduction
Regular exercise has been shown to raise the HDL cholesterol and lower “bad”, or LDL, cholesterol.
Which exercise is best to reduce cholesterol? The benefits come not from the specific activity, but from how it affects your heart rate. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise to significantly reduce the risk of disease. Your intensity is moderate when your breathing and heart rate are noticeably faster but you can still talk, according to the CDC.
“Find ways to move more during the day,” Duffy counsels. “This may look like adding in a brisk walk after lunch, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, or parking further away in the parking lot at the grocery store or the mall. If you are at home during the day, get up and stretch during commercial breaks, stand while working on the computer or put on some music and dance.”
Moderate-intensity activities include:
- Actively playing with others
- Biking at a casual pace
- Doing light yard work or housework (raking/bagging leaves, pushing a lawnmower or vacuum cleaner)
- Taking group classes like water aerobics
Check out these strength, flexibility and balance exercises.
If you’re cleared for more intense activity, you can do 75 minutes each week of vigorous cardiovascular exercise. The CDC defines vigorous intensity as when your heart rate is substantially increased and you’re breathing too hard and fast to talk to someone. Some examples include:
- Cardio classes like Barre or Zumba
- Cross-country skiing
- Jogging, running or hiking outside or on a treadmill
- Jumping rope
- Playing a team sport like football, basketball, or soccer
- Rollerblading/inline skating at a brisk pace
Talk to your primary care provider about adding or intensifying your exercise plan to help manage your cholesterol.
Diet to Lower Cholesterol
What is the best diet for bad cholesterol? Prioritize foods that lower LDL cholesterol levels.
“When we think about managing cholesterol levels through diet, it's easy to dwell on what you can't eat,” admits registered dietician nutritionist Gaby Vaca-Flores, founder of Los Angeles-based Glow and Greens. “Instead, I recommend focusing on foods that you can eat. For instance, soluble fiber can bind to cholesterol and prevent it from entering your bloodstream, and plant sterols and stanols can lower cholesterol levels by preventing its absorption.” Soluble fiber and plant sterols and stanols are found in everyday foods like:
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds, particularly almonds, walnuts and Brazil nuts
- Plant oils
- Apples and citrus fruits
- Vegetables like broccoli, carrots and peas
Oats are one of the top foods Johna Burdeos, RD, recommends.
“Oatmeal turns gel-like as it gets digested — making it stick to cholesterol. This prevents cholesterol from going into the bloodstream,” the Houston-based consultant explains. “Boost the flavor and texture of oatmeal by adding natural sweetness in the form of chopped fruits and nuts. These foods also have nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants to help optimize overall health. Adding flaxseed to oatmeal helps, too, as flaxseeds are high in omega 3 fatty acids, which also help lower cholesterol. Flaxseeds also contain antioxidants which help fight cellular damage caused by inflammatory conditions like diabetes and heart disease.”
While eating more good-for-you foods is important, don’t forget to limit your intake of foods that are high in saturated fats, like red meat, butter and cheese. Replace these foods with healthier options like lean meats and olive oil.
Reduce Cholesterol with Diet and Exercise
“Diet and exercise work together to create a positive environment in the body,” Duffy concludes. “They help decrease inflammation and promote increased muscle mass, decrease fat mass and potentially weight loss. In the case of overweight and obesity, a 10% weight loss alone can improve HDL and LDL numbers.”
Talk to your primary care provider about how you can use nutrition and exercise to influence your cholesterol levels and improve overall health.
Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be experiencing a healthcare condition or medical emergency.