Exercise and HDL Cholesterol

Rise in HDL Correlates Best With Duration of Exercise Sessions

Older man exercising
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It's not a surprise that, in addition to all the other benefits of aerobic exercise, it also increases HDL levels, the "good" cholesterol. But what the jury is still out on is just how much HDL levels can be increased by exercise, or which forms of exercise are the most effective at doing so.

What Is HDL Cholesterol?

HDL cholesterol transports cholesterol from the blood and walls of arteries to the liver.

In the liver, cholesterol is converted to bile, which is then excreted by the body or used for digestion. The entire process helps prevent or reverse heart disease, “reverse cholesterol transport process” is believed to be helpful in preventing or reversing heart disease. Therefore, it is desirable to have a higher HDL cholesterol level. For example, HDL levels above 60 mg/dl reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Recent Research on Exercise and HDL Cholesterol

Experts have known for a long time that exercise helps increase the production and effect of certain enzymes that enhance this "reverse cholesterol transport" process. A study conducted a few years ago by Japanese researchers appears to shed some light on the questions of how exercise type, frequency, and intensity impact HDL cholesterol.

In a meta-analysis, investigators from Tokyo evaluated the effect of exercise on HDL levels. They included data from 35 randomized trials assessing the effect of exercise on HDL levels in adults.

While exercise regimens varied among these studies, on average patients in these studies exercised for 40 minutes, three to four times per week, and the effect on HDL was measured after eight to 27 weeks.

Across the studies, participants had increases in HDL cholesterol averaging about 2.5 mg/dL. This increase in HDL cholesterol was only modest but was statistically significant.

Furthermore, since cardiac risk is thought to drop by two to three percent for each 1 mg/dL increase in HDL, a 2.5 mg/dL rise in HDL may actually amount to a substantial reduction in risk.

Perhaps the most interesting finding from this study is the observation that the duration of exercise sessions - and not the frequency or intensity of exercise - correlated the best with rises in HDL levels. The investigators report that in research subjects exercising for at least 20 minutes, each additional 10-minute increase in exercise duration increased HDL levels by an additional 1.4 mg/dL.

Other Lifestyle Changes to Boost HDL Cholesterol

The results of this study indicate that exercising at least three to four times per week for at least 20 minutes (though 40 would be better) will help you increase your HDL levels. In fact, increasing the duration of your exercise sessions by pacing yourself judiciously (that is, by going slower if necessary), appears to be the best way to translate exercise into higher HDL levels.

In addition to exercise, other lifestyle changes can help you increase your HDL level. These include:

  • Quitting smoking, which can increase your HDL cholesterol by up to 10 percent. 
  • Losing weight: For every 6 pounds lost, HDL may increase by 1 mg/dL. 
  • Choosing healthier fats such as the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive, peanut and canola oils as well as nuts, fish and other foods containing omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Consuming alcohol in moderation: No more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger. 


Kodama S, Tanaka S, Saito K, et al. Effect of aerobic exercise training on serum levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Arch Intern Med 2007; 167:999-1008.

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