The Best Way to Naturally Lower Your Cholesterol

woman lifting weights and eating a burger
October 19, 2016
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Let’s be clear about one thing straight up: when it comes to heart disease, cholesterol isn’t your biggest problem. Don’t get me wrong—eventually, cholesterol can cause blockages, which lead to strokes, heart attacks, thrombosis, or other problems. Too much cholesterol in your body is very dangerous. But my point is simply this: If you are taking cholesterol-lowering medicine to protect your heart, you are only treating the symptom, not the underlying causes.

What are those underlying causes? Some people talk about diet, but the cholesterol in your diet plays a very minor role in your total cholesterol numbers.

Your genes do play an important role. But, in a very real way, they aren’t important at all. You have no control over your genes, so you needn’t pay them much mind—other than to be aware of potential looming problems, as exemplified by your parents and grandparents.

Still, there is one factor that towers above all others—and it’s one that you yourself can control. And that’s the amount of fat you carry. Not just any fat, mind you—visceral fat is far worse than any other.

It’s not about being skinny

The amount of visceral fat you carry is directly related to the amount of good and bad cholesterol you have in your blood.

More fat means higher LDL and triglycerides—bad cholesterol—and lower HDL—good cholesterol.

But that doesn’t mean being skinny or overweight necessarily tells the full story. Because not all fat is created equal.

Visceral fat—the stuff that packs in around your middle, and in between your organs—is much more dangerous than subcutaneous fat—the fat that is just below your skin.

Visceral fat increases your risk of diabetes, cancer, and yes, heart disease. Because visceral fat interferes with the proper functioning of your organs, and greatly increases your cholesterol problems.

What’s more, visceral fat doesn’t always relate to appearance. You can look skinny, but have plenty of visceral fat around your organs. Likewise, you can appear overweight, but actually not have much visceral fat.

Whether you tend to store your fat subcutaneously or viscerally is largely a matter of your genetic makeup.

But there’s very good news here. Because no matter how your own body tends to store fat, you can burn away visceral fat through behavior alone.

Again, this has nothing to do with your appearance. Whether you are svelte or husky, in order to keep visceral fat at bay, exercise is the key.

But not just any exercise. To keep your visceral fat in check—and, by extension, your cholesterol levels—you should use a combination of three types of exercise.

1. Moderate activity

When most people think of exercise, they think of sweat and strain.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, some of the best exercise isn’t hard at all. And that’s doing moderate amounts of physical activity—everything from taking an afternoon stroll, to gardening. Just get out and move!

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Doing moderate exercise doesn’t mean you’re being lazy. It’s a perfectly good way to stay in shape, and battle belly fat. In fact, many people think that moderate exercise is the best way to burn fat, since it allows your body to immediately tap into fat for energy, during your activity.

But it also isn’t an excuse to avoid exertion altogether. If you’re walking, for instance, you want to stay above a 20 minute per mile pace.

But as long as you’re being active, you’re in good shape. 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week – that’s about 20 minutes a day—is what health organizations recommend to stay ahead of visceral fat. It boosts your metabolism, and keeps your body humming along at the right pace.

2. Vigorous activity

Vigorous exercise doesn’t directly burn fat for energy. You’re going through your energy too quickly, so your body doesn’t have time to convert fat into accessible energy.

However, vigorous exercise—like going for a run, or biking faster than 10 mph—burns more energy, much faster. It boosts your metabolism to a greater degree. And it directly exercises and conditions your heart and cardiovascular system.

The easiest way to tell if what you’re doing is moderate or vigorous is the talk test. If it’s easy for you to hold a conversation while you’re doing it, that’s moderate exercise. If you run out of breath after a few seconds of talking, that’s vigorous.

Because you’re working your body harder, vigorous exercise doesn’t take as much time—around 75 minutes a week will keep you on the right track. Those 75 minutes can replace moderate exercise—though, for the best results, you should try to include both moderate and vigorous exercises every week, to get the best effects from each.

3. Strength training

For a long time, conventional wisdom thought that strength training—like lifting weights, or doing sit-ups or push-ups—was immaterial to your heart health.

But that’s simply wrong. In addition to getting your blood pumping, strength training increases your muscle mass.

And larger muscles need more energy—which means they keep you humming along at a higher resting metabolic rate and burn through fat faster.

It’s important to stress that strength training doesn’t require fancy gym equipment or big weights. You can get the same effects just by moving your own body weight, like with push-ups.

And if you are working with weights, increasing repetitions is more beneficial than increasing the weight you lift. Two or three strength training exercises a week is enough to start seeing great effects—not only in terms of losing weight, but also in gaining energy and, frankly, having your clothes fit you better.

But if you can add a little bit of strength training every day—by, for instance, doing sit-ups each morning right after you wake—you’ll be ahead of the game.

The best way to combat visceral fat—and its tag-along danger, cholesterol—is to do some moderate and vigorous exercise each week, along with strength training. However, if you haven’t been very active previously, it’s more important to start slow and ramp up over time.

You want a program you can stick with for the long haul.

And, with a bit of time set aside for exercise every week, your road can be very long, and healthy, indeed.

References

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