Aerobic Exercise Raises HDL Cholesterol

Exercise is always one of the first recommendations for improving blood cholesterol levels, but do readily achievable amounts of exercise really improve HDL and LDL cholesterol?

A report in the Archives of Medicine describes a meta-analysis that looked at 35 clinical trials with a total of 1,404 participants and found that regular aerobic exercise increased HDL ("good") cholesterol by a mean of 2.5 mg/dL. This analysis did not examine the effects of exercise on LDL ("bad") cholesterol

The participants' average exercise session lasted for about 40 minutes and they each did a total of 120 minutes of exercise a week. The rise in HDL cholesterol was not influenced by the intensity of the exercise, but the results suggested that a few longer periods of exercise were more effective than shorter exercise sessions. The response of HDL cholesterol was greater in individuals who were not obese and who had a total cholesterol of 220 mg/dL or higher.

But the increases in HDL cholesterol revealed by the meta-analysis - an average increase of 2.5 mg/dL - were by no means dazzling. Such an increase in HDL cholesterol is almost certainly beneficial, but since a man's HDL cholesterol level may commonly be as low as 30 mg/dL or less, a 2.5 mg/dL boost in HDL will still leave him far short of the minimal target of at least 40 mg/dL for men.

Two final points about exercise and cholesterol should not be obscured by this meta-analysis, which focused only on HDL levels.

  • Despite ubiquitous references to the ability of exercise to lower bad LDL cholesterol, regular exercise has little or no impact on LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Exercise is an extremely effective way to lower triglyceride levels.