Exercising your way to Heart Health

According to the American Heart Association, physical activity increases HDL levels (the “good” cholesterol) in some people.  A high HDL cholesterol level reduces risk for heart disease.  “Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for disease.”

Age, sex, race, and genetics all play a role in a person’s metabolism.  The amount of exercise required varies person to person.  It is safe to say that in general, exercise and weight loss will contribute to better overall health.  Choose an exercise program that will keep you interested and motivated.  You’ll be more likely to continue exercising if you are doing something you enjoy.

If you are intending to start an exercise regime to improve your health, talk to your doctor first.  What follows is general exercise advice, but cannot take the place of a physician’s opinions.  Only your physician will be able to make recommendations based on your age, gender, and medical history.

How Much is Enough?

A study published in 1991 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) looked at how much walking women must do for cardiovascular health.   It found that “Vigorous exercise is not necessary for women to obtain meaningful improvements in their lipoprotein profile.  Walking at intensities that do not have a major impact on cardiorespiratory fitness may nonetheless produce equally favorable changes in the cardiovascular risk profile.”  Women who walked at a leisurely pace had the same cholesterol change benefit as women walking at a moderate pace, although the former did not see as much weight loss.

Another study published in JAMA found that total and LDL cholesterol levels were reduced when individuals used a combination of exercise and weight-loss program.  The study found that a loss of weight resulted in better cholesterol levels.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day.  This includes brisk walking, mowing the lawn, dancing, swimming for recreation, and bicycling.  This adds up to 2 hours and 30 minutes a week, and should be done for at least 10 minutes or more at a time.  Vigorous activities, like aerobic dance, hiking uphill, jogging, running, swimming laps, and sports with a lot of running should be done at least 1 hour and 15 minutes a week.  Muscle strengthening activities should be done at least twice a week.  The CDC says “The key is to find the right exercise for you.  If it is fun, you are more likely to stay motivated.”

The Mayo Clinic also recommends exercising to reduce cholesterol, saying you should work up to 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day.  “Adding physical activity, even in 10-minute intervals several times a day, can help you to begin to lose weight.”

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “exercise has the greatest effect of triglycerides and HDL, the good cholesterol.  Exercise does not have much impact on LDL unless combined with dietary changes and weight loss.”  They recommend starting at 15 to 20 minute intervals of aerobic exercise (cycling, swimming, walking, elliptical machines), and build up to 30 minutes a day.

The Importance of Diet

Which is more important to reduce coronary artery disease, aerobic exercise or weight loss?  A study published in JAMA found that diet-induced weight loss is the preferred method to reduce CAD in overweight, middle-aged and older men.  Those that lost weight had lower glucose levels, higher HDL (“good” cholesterol), and lower blood pressure than those who did aerobic exercise alone.  The two groups had similar decreases in triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol levels.

As shown by this study, weight loss caused by diet changes may be more beneficial than aerobic exercise alone because consuming too many cholesterol and saturated fats are largely responsible for CAD.  When people eat less of them, their overall health will automatically improve.  Aerobic exercise will improve a person’s cholesterol levels, but without dietary changes it is an uphill battle.