How Does Exercise Affect Your Cholesterol?

Many types of exercise can lower cholesterol. Webphotographeer - istockphoto

Sometimes it may seem like it takes all of your energy just to drag yourself out of bed for your morning jog or your evening workout at the gym. But let’s face it: exercise has many, amazing health benefits. Not only can it keep your weight down, build up your muscles, and reduce your risk of developing certain medical conditions, exercising regularly also has beneficial effects on the heart -  including your cholesterol levels.

But exactly how does exercise affect your cholesterol?

Unfortunately, the way exercise works in improving your cholesterol levels is still not very clear. Although there have been studies examining the effects of exercise on cholesterol, these studies have also been coupled with other cholesterol-lowering lifestyle changes, such as following a healthy diet or losing weight. Because all of these factors can have an impact on cholesterol, researchers are not exactly sure how much of a contribution exercise makes to lowering your cholesterol. However, more recent studies examining the effect of exercise alone reveal a few ways that exercise may help improve your cholesterol levels:

  • Lipoprotein particle size.  Some studies have shown that exercise can affect the size of your LDL. Smaller lipoproteins, such as small, dense LDL, have been associated with contributing to cardiovascular disease. Having larger LDL particles does not carry this same risk. Studies have shown that moderate exercise can increase the size of your LDL particles, which can help to reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In one study, a 12-week endurance exercise program reduced small, dense LDL by up to 17%.
  • Reverse cholesterol transport. A few studies in mice have suggested that exercise can enhance the transport of cholesterol from the bloodstream to the liver, where it will eventually be removed.
  • Absorption. A few studies have shown that 8 to 12 weeks of endurance exercise may slightly reduce the absorption of cholesterol from the small intestine into the bloodstream. The amount of cholesterol made by the liver does not appear to be affected by exercise. 

    Although researchers are still trying to determine exactly how exercise affects your cholesterol, the bottom line is clear: moderate exercise appears to have favorable effects on your cholesterol levels:

    • Moderate exercise may reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 10% in some studies. There are a few studies that suggest that exercise may have a slightly positive or neutral effect on LDL.
    • Exercising regularly can increase your HDL cholesterol by between 3 and 6%.

    Although this may not seem like much, combining exercise with other lifestyle changes can help keep your cholesterol levels - as well as the rest of your body - healthy.

    How Much Exercise Do You Need?

    The amount and type of moderate exercise varied widely in these studies. The American Heart Association has the following recommendations when it comes to including exercise in your healthy lifestyle:

    • For your overall heart health, you should fit in 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise daily for at least 5 days a week.
    • For specifically lowering lipids, you should be including at least 40 minutes’ worth of moderate to vigorous exercise at least three to four times a week.

    If you can’t fit this into your busy day, it's no sweat. You can divide your time up into 10 or 15 minute intervals to achieve the total recommended amount of exercise daily.



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