Add Resistance Training for Heart Health
Resistance training, also known as strength training, uses machines, free weights, bands, or your own body weight to build muscle. The AHA recommends strength training at least twice a week for optimal heart health.
Aim for more repetitions, not more weight, as you get stronger because that’s been shown to have a greater benefit on cholesterol levels, says Lee Jordan, an American Council on Exercise–certified health coach and behavior change specialist in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
If you’re not familiar with the moves, take a class or work with a professional trainer first to avoid injury and get the maximum benefit.
Even if you are familiar with proper form, don’t leap straight from your couch to the weight rack. “If you’ve been sedentary, particularly if you have risks for heart disease, get your doctor’s okay before you start exercising,” says Dr. Eckel.
Then just start! “That may sound ridiculous,” says Jordan, “but people get themselves all tied up waiting for the perfect time to begin an exercise program — when this happens or that happens. There’s no perfect time. You just have to start.”
Jordan believes that while the AHA frequency guidelines point to good outcomes for people who are trying to shift their cholesterol numbers, people who are just beginning to work out should aim for even more sessions: five or six days a week. “That’s what it takes to establish a new habit,” says Jordan. “In the beginning, frequency really counts.”
Some great ways to stay motivated past those initial weeks:
- Keeping Your Goals Realistic If you expect to lose a lot of weight through exercise or reach healthy cholesterol numbers quickly, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment — and end up dropping out.
- Making Exercise Social Having the support of family or a friend helps you keep going. Numerous apps can also link you to other exercisers.
- Being Flexible If you can’t make it to the gym or the weather is forcing you to stay in, work out in your living room.
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Once you’ve worked up to a stable exercise program, you should see improvements in your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in about a month, says Eckel. But exercise alone won’t significantly drop your LDL cholesterol levels. You will also need to alter your diet. In particular, Eckel advises avoiding saturated fat, the kind found in marbled red meat and full-fat dairy products.
Even though reducing your LDL numbers is beneficial, research on whether it affects overall longevity is still inconclusive. For now, eating a balanced, healthy diet that’s rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains — based on the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate or the Mediterranean diet — is the best approach.
Additional reporting by Kaitlin Sullivan.