Does Exercise Help to Lower Cholesterol?

Health & Wellness

Certain workouts can help you reduce the bad kind of cholesterol while simultaneously boosting the healthy kind.

Last updated: 1 September 2022
7 min read
Does Exercise Help to Lower Cholesterol?

There are many different ways you can actively protect your heart so that you lead a long, healthy life—lowering your cholesterol levels is a great place to start.

In general, making certain dietary changes is one of the most effective ways you can reduce your overall cholesterol levels. Limiting the amount of saturated fat you consume is key but becoming more physically active can also help.

Here, we explain several ways exercise can help you to lower your cholesterol levels. But first, let's unpack what cholesterol is and how it can positively—and negatively—impact your health.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in your body's cells. Bear in mind that your body makes some cholesterol all on its own. But cholesterol is also found through diet, primarily foods that are animal-based, such as eggs, meat and dairy.

Your body needs some cholesterol to function properly. For example, cholesterol is necessary to make vitamin D, certain hormones and even substances called bile acids that help your intestines digest food properly. But consuming too much dietary cholesterol is believed to cause health issues.

In fact, having excess cholesterol in the blood can combine with other substances to form plaque that sticks to the walls of your arteries. Plaque build-up—called atherosclerosis—can cause narrowing or blockage of the arteries and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

There are three types of cholesterol:

  • HDL cholesterol, also called high-density lipoprotein, helps to remove excess cholesterol from the body. It is often referred to as 'good' cholesterol.
  • LDL cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein, can lead to a build-up of plaque in your arteries. It is often referred to as 'bad' cholesterol.
  • VLDL cholesterol, or very low-density lipoprotein, carries triglycerides and can also contribute to plaque in the arteries. VLDL is also considered to be 'bad' cholesterol.

High cholesterol (also called dyslipidemia) can be inherited. But lifestyle factors, such as eating a diet that's high in saturated fat, not getting much exercise and smoking, can also contribute to high cholesterol. Leading a sedentary lifestyle and smoking, in particular, can reduce HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which can then cause LDL (bad) cholesterol levels to increase. Remember, HDL cholesterol helps to remove LDL (bad) cholesterol from your body.

Exercise and Cholesterol

There are two key ways in which exercise can improve your overall cholesterol levels.

First, exercise has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol in clinical studies. For example, a research review published in 2014 cited a study where researchers reported a 13 percent increase in HDL cholesterol when participants exercised on ski-style exercise equipment three times per week for 40 minutes over the course of 10 weeks.

And a 2020 research review suggests that exercise may not only be a useful therapy for increasing HDL levels, it also found that getting active on a regular basis may improve its antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. In other words, the findings of this review propose that physical activity can enhance HDL's ability to help prevent certain chronic diseases in the body.

Exercise can also help you maintain a healthy body weight. Studies have shown that losing weight can help to reduce LDL cholesterol levels in people who are overweight or have obesity. In fact, one study published in 2016 found losing just 5–10 percent of your body weight can help you reduce triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.

3 Workout Routines to Lower Cholesterol

Health organisations like the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and others recommend that you participate in regular exercise to maintain good heart health.

According to AHA, getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week is enough to lower both cholesterol and high blood pressure levels. But the NIH adds that the key to success is starting out slowly and then increasing your effort gradually.

RELATED: How Does Exercise Lower Blood Pressure?

Consider any of these workouts below to help you achieve healthy cholesterol levels.

A word from Nike: check with your health care provider before starting a new exercise routine, especially if you take medications that affect your heart rate or if you have a medical condition.

Does Exercise Help to Lower Cholesterol?


Walking is one of the easiest forms of exercise for many people because it doesn't require any special equipment other than a good pair of walking shoes. The NIH suggests starting with 30 minutes of moderate-intensity brisk walking on most, or all days of the week. But don't worry if that amount sounds overwhelming. You can start with short, 10-minute walks and gradually build from there.

Sample walking routine: if you're just starting out, try walking for 10 minutes, three times during the week. Schedule it before or after a meal so that it is easy to remember. You might even want to bring your spouse or a friend and make your new walking habit a group effort.

As you build endurance, add time in 5-minute increments. Then eventually add extra days to your walking programme. To reach the goal of 150 minutes per week, consider walking for 30 minutes at least five days of the week. Or, you can break up your walk into segments and complete them throughout the day instead of all at once. For example, try two 15-minute daily walks or three 10-minute walks.

Does Exercise Help to Lower Cholesterol?


Running or jogging is a great way to burn calories, maintain a healthy weight and boost heart health. In fact, a large-scale study published in 2014 found that both walking and running can reduce your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and potentially coronary heart disease. If you're new to running, why not combine both to ease into your programme and boost your overall health?

Sample jogging routine: if you have a walking programme in place, add short segments of jogging to your regular workout. For example, during a 30-minute session, you might warm up with five minutes of brisk walking. Then jog slowly for 30 seconds. Recover by walking briskly for 90 seconds. Jog again for 30 seconds and follow up with a 90-second recovery. Repeat this sequence 10 times. End your workout with a five-minute cooldown walk.

As your fitness level increases, you can increase the jogging segments and decrease the recovery segment until you are jogging for the entire workout. But if you like the interval-style workout, continue to alternate between walking and jogging. It is still a great way to burn calories and get fit.

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Does Exercise Help to Lower Cholesterol?


Riding a bike is a great way to get some exercise that often puts less stress and strain on your joints. You'll also increase muscle mass and strength in your lower body. If you're riding outdoors, make sure that you make safety a priority. Outside, use bike paths when available and wear a helmet.

Sample cycling routine: start by riding at an easy pace for about five minutes to warm up your muscles. Then, increase your pace so that you reach a moderate intensity.

If you are wearing a fitness tracker or heart rate monitor, you'll want to increase your heart rate to 64–76 percent of your maximum heart rate. But if you don't have one, don't worry. You can use a rating of perceived exertion or RPE scale. On a scale of one to 10, you should feel like you are working at a level six or level seven. The effort should feel challenging but sustainable.

As your fitness level increases, add a few hill climbs to your routine or insert a few higher-intensity sprints to make the rides more challenging.

Dietary Changes

Lastly, remember that in addition to your exercise programme, dietary changes are also important lifestyle changes you can make to lower cholesterol. Most importantly, you'll want to reduce your intake of saturated fat found in foods such as cheese, fatty meats and some processed foods. For context, the AHA suggests that you limit your intake of saturated fat to less than 6 percent of your daily calories.

Now, you can still enjoy foods with fat as part of your heart-healthy diet, but just try to opt for foods with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats instead of saturated. Foods such as nuts, seeds, avocado and plant-based oils are delicious ways to get essential fats in your daily diet while providing other important nutrients as well.

And for more helpful tips on what to eat to improve fitness and heart health, download the Nike Training Club (NTC) App.

Does Exercise Help to Lower Cholesterol?

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Originally published: 10 January 2022

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