Medically reviewed on February 24, 2023 by Jordan Stachel, MS, RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Cholesterol, a waxy, fat-like substance found in every cell, is vital to the human body. The substance plays a pivotal role in health and wellness, whether in aiding hormone production, digestion, brain development and activity, or bone and muscle growth.
Some cholesterol is good and necessary. But too much of it, especially certain kinds of bad cholesterol, can lead to health complications.
Previously, the medical consensus posited a person’s diet was key for lowering blood cholesterol levels. Now, our understanding of cholesterol’s role in human health is more nuanced: diet is still considered a factor, but regular exercise is known to have a much greater impact than previously thought.
Below, we’ll describe how to use exercise to lower cholesterol and what the best type of exercise is the next time you’re gearing up to get your heart rate pumping.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a lipid substance that your body—specifically, your liver—produces. It can also be found in animal-based foods, such as meats (including poultry), and dairy products.
These insoluble lipids connect to proteins, which lets them travel through the bloodstream and reach different parts of the body. In doing so, they can moderate various physiological functions, including :
- Helping cell membranes form protective layers, which control entrance or egress to the cell.
- Supporting the body’s production of hormones (and, particularly, the production of sex hormones).
- Helping the liver make bile, which is necessary for digestion.
At normal levels, cholesterol is largely beneficial to a healthy adult. However, if blood cholesterol levels become too high, plaque and fatty deposits can build up in your blood vessels. This can then impede blood flow through the arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack, stroke, or arterial blockages.
Types of cholesterol
To understand the interplay between regular exercise, diet, and cholesterol, you should know that there are two primary types of cholesterol. Medical experts consider one of them to be good, and the other to be harmful to an individual’s health. These two types are:
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – Also known as “good” cholesterol, HDL absorbs cholesterol in the bloodstream and then carries it back to the liver where it will later be flushed out. High levels of HDL can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – Also known as bad cholesterol, LDLs aren’t bad in and of themselves. However, when you have too many of them circulating in the blood, they become more difficult to remove naturally. If your blood LDL cholesterol level builds up, it can combine with other substances to form plaque on the walls of the arteries. An elevated LDL cholesterol level can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.
See related: How are hypertension, heart disease, and stroke related?
Another type of fat circulating in the bloodstream that is often lumped into the cholesterol conversation is:
- Triglycerides – Although these aren’t technically cholesterol, these fatty lipids store excess energy and circulate in the bloodstream. Typically, high triglyceride levels combined with high LDL levels are linked to increased fatty build-ups within the arteries .
And what are optimal cholesterol levels? Can cholesterol be too low? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an adult should aim for the following baselines :
- Total cholesterol – About 150 mg/dL
- LDL (“bad”) cholesterol – About 100 mg/dL
- HDL (“good”) cholesterol – At least 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women
- Triglycerides – Less than 150 mg/dL
The links between exercise and cholesterol
Researchers and care providers have long theorized that there was a direct connection between cholesterol levels, behavior, and physical activity. In the last decade, research in the field has retrieved evidence to support the idea.
According to a 2014 meta-analysis of 13 studies : “There is a direct relationship between chronically elevated cholesterol levels (dyslipidemia) and coronary heart disease. A reduction in total cholesterol is considered the gold standard in preventive cardiovascular medicine. Exercise has been shown to have positive impacts on the pathogenesis, symptomatology and physical fitness of individuals with dyslipidemia, and to reduce cholesterol levels.”
While there remain some questions over the exact ways that exercise improves cholesterol, three mechanisms, in particular, appear to have an outsized impact:
- Creation of HDL cholesterol – Exercise can increase HDL production, which helps remove excess cholesterol and prevents arterial buildups.
- Enzyme activity stimulation – Scientists believe that exercise helps to stimulate enzymes that then help remove LDL from the blood and the vessel walls to the liver for later expulsion. The more you exercise, the more LDL is removed from the bloodstream.
- Protein particle growth – As mentioned, for LDL or HDL cholesterol to move in the bloodstream, they must be attached to a protein. The research appears to indicate that exercise increases the size of protein particles, which makes it harder for cholesterol to slide into the smaller blood vessels.
How much exercise do I need?
If you want to lower your cholesterol levels, even engaging in daily mild aerobic exercise can make a tangible difference to your cardiac health.
A 2018 meta-analysis discovered that 2 to 6 months of 30 minutes of daily low- or moderate-intensity exercise had a positive effect on LDL subfractions and reduced the risks of cardiovascular disease .
So, how long does it take to lower cholesterol? It depends, but, naturally, the harder and more frequently you exercise, the greater the impact on cholesterol will be. High-intensity exercise is the best type for lowering cholesterol levels due to elevated heart rates and blood flow.
What types of exercise are best?
The best exercise plan for one person may look radically different than another. For the best chances of building a healthy routine, you should tailor it to your current fitness level, personal preferences, desired fitness goals, and recommendations from your healthcare provider.
If you haven’t been exercising consistently, start slowly by focusing mostly on low to moderate activities. From there, as your fitness and stamina increase, you can start to include more intense activities in your regimen.
To start, you might try:
- Aerobic exercise – Cardio exercise is focused on increasing your heart rate and breathing rate for extended periods, which is incredibly important for your lung and heart health. Types of aerobic exercise you could engage in include: running, walking (briskly), biking, playing sports, swimming, dancing, rowing, skiing, jumping rope, stair climbing, hiking.
- Resistance training – Also known as strength training, resistance training helps burn fat, build muscles, and supports heart health. This includes activities such as weightlifting, bodyweight training, resistance band exercises, and suspension training.
- Interval training – This type of exercise involves alternating cycles of high-intensity exercise like a sprint, with periods of low-intensity exercise like walking. This might include activities like: high interval sprints, circuit training, spin classes, martial arts, surfing.
Ideally, you should engage in at least 30 minutes of exercise five times per week. If your cholesterol levels are high, you may want to gradually increase the intensity and frequency of training as time passes.
Tips for getting the most out of your exercise regimen
If you want the best results, remember that exercise is just a single factor in the total heart health equation. Some additional lifestyle changes may help improve your cholesterol and support your new training program, such as:
- Tracking your progress – If you want exercise to become a habit and not just a temporary phase, you should chart your progress weekly. Using snapshots of your cholesterol levels by taking cholesterol tests makes it easier to notice positive changes. Celebrating your milestones can help you stay motivated.
- Eating a healthy diet – Although diet doesn’t play as large of a role in cholesterol as once thought, it still can have an impact (as well as on your overall health). To improve your diet, try reducing your saturated fat and trans-fat intake, both of which contribute to high cholesterol. Instead of consuming trans-fat-rich food, focus on soluble fibers and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish.
- Switching up your activities – If you only perform one type of activity each day, it’s easy to burn out or grow bored. To keep your exercising effective, you can try a variety of activities from the cardio, strength, and interval training categories. Experimenting with your preferences can help you stay active, engaged, and stimulated.
- Working out with others – If you only work out solo, who is holding you accountable? Exercising with friends can keep you motivated to meet your goals, whether they are lowering your cholesterol levels, losing weight, or building muscle. Whether you find an exercise buddy, hire a trainer, or join a group, making exercise a group affair could be more effective (and fun).
- Dropping unhealthy habits – If you want to improve your heart health, you should make lifestyle changes that support this goal. For instance, you may need to get more sleep, stop drinking alcohol, or quit smoking—all of which can have negative impacts on your mental and physical health.
Cholesterol testing with Everlywell
Although researchers are discovering more each day, the scientific consensus is that moderate to intense daily exercise can have a significant impact on your cholesterol levels and cardiac health. The good news is that you are free to pick the exercises that suit you best. You just need to make sure that you’re moving daily.
Need a way to track your progress?
At Everlywell, our cholesterol and lipids at-home test functions exactly like a standard lipid panel, measuring your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglyceride counts. Everlywell provides easy-to-understand insights about your health, a personalized report of each marker, and actionable advice you can leverage along your continued health journey.
Can cholesterol be too low?
How long does it take to lower cholesterol?
4 evidence-based ways to lower LDL cholesterol levels
What is non-HDL cholesterol?
- What Is Cholesterol? Cleveland Clinic. Accessed February 9, 2023. URL
- HDL (Good), LDL (Bad) Cholesterol and Triglycerides. American Heart Association. Published November 6, 2020. Accessed February 9, 2023. URL
- About High Blood Cholesterol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published February 6, 2019. Accessed February 9, 2023. URL
- Mann S, Beedie C, Jimenez A. Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations. Sports Medicine. 2013;44(2):211-221. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0110-5
- Albarrati AM, Alghamdi MSM, Nazer RI, Alkorashy MM, Alshowier N, Gale N. Effectiveness of Low to Moderate Physical Exercise Training on the Level of Low-Density Lipoproteins: A Systematic Review. BioMed Research International. Published November 1, 2018.