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Why Doctors Should Be Prescribing Exercise For High Cholesterol

September 2, 2021

The most recent scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggests doctors start prescribing exercise for high cholesterol and blood pressure. The suggestion applies to people whose levels are moderately high. There’s growing support for healthy lifestyle changes (beginning with increasing physical activity) as a first treatment strategy. 

AHA researchers say that nearly 30% of all adults in the United States, — roughly 71 million people — have slightly high cholesterol levels. This is measured by a "bad" LDL cholesterol score above 70 mg/dL. And an estimated 21% of U.S. adults – about 53 million people – have blood pressure that's considered a little too high. 

Since September is National Cholesterol Education Month, let’s take a closer look at the findings and look at some exercises that are considered beneficial when it comes to lowering cholesterol. 

The Facts About High Cholesterol And High Blood Pressure

Having high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure affects your overall heart health. 

If your cholesterol is high, you can develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits grow, making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. Sometimes, those deposits can break suddenly and form a clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.

Your heart attack risk also increases when your blood pressure is high. That’s because high blood pressure damages arteries that can become blocked and prevent blood flow to your heart muscle.

What’s A Scientific Statement?

Scientific statements generally include a review of data available on a specific subject. It also contains an evaluation on the subject’s (in this case cholesterol and blood pressure) relationship to overall cardiovascular disease science, and often an AHA/ASA position on the basis of that evaluation.

The purpose of this scientific statement from the American Heart Association is threefold:

  1. Highlight the mild-moderate risk patient groups indicated for lifestyle-only treatment for elevated blood pressure or cholesterol.
  2. Describe recommendations, average effects, and additional considerations when prescribing lifestyle treatment with physical activity.
  3. Provide guidance and resources for clinicians.

It’s essentially a statement based on the scientific evidence that’s available at the time. 

The Effects Of Exercise On Cholesterol

In general, aerobic exercise tends to increase high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C/”good cholesterol”) and decrease triglycerides. Effects of aerobic exercise on LDL-C (“bad cholesterol”) are less consistent.

But increasing your HDL is a great way to decrease your risk of heart disease. And an easy way to figure what type of exercises you should be doing is by referencing the most recent Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. 

Within their statement, researchers with the American Heart Association provided this summary of the recommendations:

Summary of the Physical Activity Recommendations for Americans*

Aerobic exercise

Muscle-strengthening (resistance) exercise

For substantial health benefits*

Should be performed:

150–300 min/wk of moderate-intensity physical activity,† or

≥2 times/wk

75–150 min/wk of vigorous-intensity physical activity,‡ or

Involving all major muscle groups

An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity

At moderate intensity or greater

 

* Even greater health benefits are realized by exceeding these recommendations (eg, moderate-intensity activity >300 minutes per week or vigorous-intensity physical activity >150 minutes per week).

† Moderate intensity corresponds to 3.0 to 5.9 metabolic equivalents and can be described to patients as any activity that begins to increase your breathing and heart rate, such as brisk walking.

‡ Vigorous intensity corresponds to ≥6.0 metabolic equivalents and can be described to patients as more intense exercise that results in larger increases in breathing and heart rate, such as jogging or brisk walking uphill.

Here’s To A Healthier You

So, if your cholesterol is slightly elevated, the first thing you should do is talk to your doctor about which exercises will be appropriate for you. Just making simple (healthier) changes to your current exercise regimen can pay big dividends. Even walking just a few extra minutes a day is a good way to start. 

It can also help if you find someone to exercise with. Having a partner to push (and push you) will help to motivate you and track your progress. It will also make it more fun. Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore, it should be something you enjoy doing, so don’t pick super-hard workouts that you will only do once. Remember, even a little movement goes a long way.

For more information on the updated physical activity guidelines for Americans, check out our guide “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.”  Inside you’ll find more ways to ease yourself into an exercise routine and how hard you should be working out to see results.

Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans