Cholesterol is vital to many processes in the human body, and when people talk about high cholesterol in a negative way, they are usually referring to LDL (aka the “bad cholesterol”) rather than HDL (the “good cholesterol”), or VLDL (which carry triglycerides in the blood). Being told you have high cholesterol can be alarming—but luckily it can be reversed, provided you make some changes to your lifestyle. “There are ways to manage high cholesterol, and the wonderful news is that heart disease is 90% preventable,” says preventative cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD. “Even if you have a significant family history of high cholesterol, you can prevent heart disease.” Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
If you want to lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, you must eat a heart-healthy diet and cut out the processed junk. This is non-negotiable, and hardly difficult considering the most heart-healthy diet in the world—the Mediterranean diet—is utterly delicious, with its emphasis on olive oil, fish, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. “What you don’t eat is also important,” says Haitham Ahmed, M.D., M.P.H. “Large amounts of refined carbohydrates [such as sweets and white bread] can cause blood sugar spikes, which prompt the body to store fat in a different way and can lead to obesity and diabetes. Saturated fats [found in whole milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, fatty meats and poultry skin] can affect your cholesterol. All these harmful effects increase your risk of heart disease tremendously.”
Regular exercise is a fun and highly effective way to lower LDL cholesterol, fast. Walking, biking, yoga, hiking, lifting weights… pick a workout you can stick to, and one you actually enjoy. “The great thing about exercise is that it doesn’t always have to be the same,” says Dr. Cho. “Always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if your high cholesterol is putting you at more immediate risk for heart disease or stroke.”
Speaking of lifting weights… Did you know resistance training can lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, irrespective of body weight? “Aerobic exercise and resistance training are the most important for heart health,” says Johns Hopkins exercise physiologist Kerry J. Stewart, Ed.D. “Although flexibility doesn’t contribute directly to heart health, it’s nevertheless important because it provides a good foundation for performing aerobic and strength exercises more effectively.”
We don’t need to tell you how bad smoking is for you—but, if you’re concerned about your cholesterol, it really is time to quit. “Smoking is so bad for your heart, and smoking really truly is one of the worst things we could do, not just for your heart, but for your brain and your lungs and all sorts of things,” says Dr. Cho. “It’s really bad for your lungs. But these risk factors are additive. So you smoke and you have high cholesterol, you have now doubled your risk. You smoke, you have high blood pressure, and you have cholesterol, it’s additive. It’s really additive. So it’s really important for your children, for yourself, for your longevity, but for your quality of life that you don’t smoke.”
Being overweight (with a BMI of 30 or above) greatly raises your risk of high cholesterol, but losing weight can lower that risk significantly. “If you are obese and have high cholesterol, losing weight should help lower your cholesterol, as well as your risk for other obesity-related conditions including diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” says Johns Hopkins Medicine.