High cholesterol is a common problem, especially in older men. This fat-like, waxy substance found in meats and dairy products is an essential part of optimal health. It is a critical part of building cell membranes, producing sex hormones and forming bile acids that help digest fats.
However, if blood levels are too high, excess cholesterol gets distributed on the artery walls and increases the risk of heart disease.
It’s important to note a couple of different types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol through your body – low-density lipoproteins (LDL), commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol,” transport cholesterol to different parts of the body and deposits any excess in the artery walls.
High-density lipoproteins, or HDL, are commonly considered the good type of cholesterol since it takes cholesterol from the artery walls and deposits it into the liver.
Although they are referred to as bad or good, both LDL and HDL are necessary, in the right amounts.
The problem for many older men is that they have too much LDL and too little HDL, which of course can lead to a host of health problems ranging from gallstones to a heart attack.
To reduce the risk of these issues and to get their HDL/LDL back into balance, doctors typically recommend a combination of diet and exercise in addition to medication.
But how much exercise is enough? Can you overdo it and end up causing more harm than good?
Researchers at the University of New Mexico set out to answer these questions through their own observations and other studies. Although a specific threshold hasn’t been identified, they were able to compile enough information to get a general idea of what exercise intensity is required to increase HDL.
Exercise intensity is expressed in METs (mL/kg/min) and is essentially a measure of oxygen consumption during physical activity. The average energy expenditure for someone resting is 3.5 mL/kg/min, or 1 MET.
Of all the studies reviewed by the UNM researchers, the general rule for increasing HDL was an exercise intensity of 6 METs or higher. Other studies though seem to suggest anything over 6 METs didn’t have much of an impact on increasing HDL, which suggests very high intensity exercise is unnecessary.
Another study indicates significant increases in HDL in men who exercise at or above 75% of their maximum heart rate at least 3 times a week for 12 weeks. In this specific study from 1990, participants who exercised at 65% of their max heart rate saw no increase in their HDL.
The following are a few ideal activities that meet the general threshold (3-6 METs) for increasing HDL.
See a more complete list from the World Health Organization.
Of course, the volume of exercise is a different matter. Studies suggest an equivalent of 7-10 miles per week is needed to significantly increase HDL.
As you can see, increasing your good cholesterol doesn’t require an intensive workout program. Many of these exercises can easily become a part of your daily routine.
There are many other benefits to doing moderate exercise on a regular basis – improved mood and muscle health are two that immediately come to mind.
So getting up, getting moving and watching your diet may be (hopefully) all you need to do to keep your cholesterol in balance.