Exercise yourself to better cholesterol numbers

If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you’ve probably wondered what you can do to improve your numbers.

Part of your regimen might include medication that your doctor prescribes as well as changes to your diet. A less obvious tactic is to add an exercise routine if you aren’t currently involved in one. If you are already working out, then there might be some value in changing things up and adding intensity to what you are normally doing.

When I work with clients, I like to provide insight or education about the process of working out and how it affects the body. I don’t like just giving people exercises to do without some real understanding of what’s going on internally.

In the case of cholesterol, there are three numbers that are measured with a blood test that is referred to as a lipid profile or lipid panel. Lipid is another word for fat. The three numbers that make up the panel are; “good” cholesterol or high density lipoprotein (HDL), “bad” cholesterol or low density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglycerides, which are a type of fat that is stored within cells. Besides measuring these three things, a lipid profile will also give a number for total cholesterol (both good and bad) and the ratio of your HDL (“good” fat) as compared to your overall total.

LDL cholesterol is called bad because it has been shown to increase the build up of plaque (or cholesterol deposits) within the arteries, increasing the chance of a heart attack or stroke. My favourite description of how this process works is to imagine that you were pouring oatmeal through a drinking straw. Some of the oatmeal will stick to the side of the straw and build up will occur over time. The opening of the straw will become smaller and eventually will close up completely. To get anything through the straw will require great pressure. LDL is low in density and sludgy … like oatmeal.

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, HDL cholesterol may help to prevent the clogging of arteries that occurs with excess LDL levels, by helping to transport bad cholesterol to the liver to be disposed of by the body. If you think back to the “oatmeal in a straw” example, HDL is more like a marble rolling through that drinking straw. It passes through without leaving “guck” to build up on the walls.

High triglyceride levels are linked to low HDL levels, excess body weight and poorly controlled diabetes.

The good news is that there is evidence that one of the ways that you can raise your levels of good cholesterol as well as decrease potentially harmful triglyceride levels is by exercising on a regular basis. In this case, the “right” kind of exercise is a combination of aerobic and strength training to decrease your body fat and increase your body’s lean muscle tissue. Being overweight or obese increases the level of bad fat in your body while it lowers your level of HDL and increases your risk of diabetes, heart attack and stroke.

Here are three things that can help you to build a leaner, fitter, more efficient body over time.

1. “Cycle” your workouts around a muscle building phase. This is crucial as the amount of skeletal muscle on your body will play a large role in the efficiency of your metabolism.

Plan to focus on general conditioning for 4 weeks doing calisthenics, body weight exercises, yoga, Pilates, walking, etc … before focusing for 4 weeks on weight lifting exercises that challenge your body at a higher level. During the muscle building phase, do full body exercise routines where you are only able to complete 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions per exercise. After the 4 week muscle building phase, return to the lower intensity conditioning routines and repeat the cycle throughout the year.

2. When combining aerobic and strength exercise, the sequence in which you do them is important. If your goal is to burn body fat, do your strength training first. When you do this, your body will use stored sugar (or glycogen) to power your muscles through their workout, leaving stored body fat for fuel during the aerobic exercise part of your training.

3. Become more active outside of your exercise program. The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends that everyone should be active up to 150 minutes per week. While this might seem like a lot, the activity can be broken into smaller segments, as little as 10 minutes at a time.

While formal aerobic and muscle building exercise are vital to building a lean, fit body, it is just as important to make your life as active as possible. Park far from the mall door, take the stairs, rake your leaves instead of using a blower, go for a walk after dinner … all of these consistent, little things add up to big changes over a lifetime.

Like most of the challenges that I’ve been writing about over the past several months, the take-home lesson should be that you do have some control over how well you manage your condition.

Listen to your health care provider and do what he or she recommends, and then decide to take charge of the things that are within your control.

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