By Joli Guenther, MSSW, NASM
Whether you have a family history of heart disease or are simply looking to take care of yourself for a lifetime, it's smart to get a handle on your cholesterol status. The American Heart Association recommends regular screening of cholesterol blood levels for all adults over the age of 20, so if you don't remember your most recent numbers, it's probably time to give your doctor a call.
Although cholesterol is manufactured by the body and carries a strong hereditary component, the final numbers are also impacted by your choices in diet and lifestyle. If you're working to get your numbers back into the healthy range, the biggest change comes from a combination of medication and exercise, meaning your home workouts can make a big difference for your heart health.
What do the numbers mean?
The American Heart Association recommends a fasting lipoprotein profile every five years for adults over 20. This quick blood test is going to provide a breakdown of your total cholesterol, HDL Cholesterol, LDL Cholesterol and Triglycerides.
Overall, you're looking for a total cholesterol level of less than 200. HDL (think "H" for Healthy) is the protective cholesterol. A number over 60 is good and under 40 is bad. LDL cholesterol (think "L" for low) is the bad cholesterol. Higher levels of this cholesterol are associated with higher risk of heart attack and stroke. Ideally you'd like this number to be under 100, though most people are glad to get under 130.
Triglycerides are the third component of your lipoprotein profile. High triglycerides (numbers over 160) are generally impacted by lifestyle factors, such as exercise, smoking, high levels of alcohol consumption and diet. Additionally, numbers over 150 seem to be associated with a greater risk for Metabolic Syndrome, a pre-cursor to diabetes and a risk factor for heart disease. For a more detailed discussion of what your cholesterol profile means, the American Heart Association offers a great resource.
Making a few smart dietary choices can lead to improvements in your cardiovascular health profile. Painless, but informed choices, include choosing Monounsaturated fats, also known as MUFAS, (i.e. olive oil, canola oil, or peanut oil) over Saturated Fats or Trans-fats (think animal fats, including those in dairy, or other vegetable fats that are solid at room temperature). Choosing MUFAs also seems to have a beneficial impact on blood sugar and insulin levels, which makes sense for all of us, whether we're warding off our 3 p.m. slump or our family history of diabetes.
In addition to choosing our fats wisely, there are many other foods (check out this list from the Mayo Clinic) that can help improve cholesterol numbers, including: oatmeal, fish that are high in omega 3 fatty acids, walnuts and other nuts, and, possibly stanol/sterol fortified foods such as orange juice and cereal. If you want to try to use diet to improve your cholesterol numbers think about making a few smart substitutions by choosing oatmeal over your usual breakfast cereal, enjoying an ounce of nuts as a snack each day, and adding omega three loaded fish into your diet a few times each week.
In addition to diet and lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and reducing alcohol consumption, exercise is the biggest controllable factor impacting your cholesterol level. Although it's important to work with your doctor in managing medication recommendations, adding in regular exercise reduces your overall cholesterol numbers and raises your HDL profile. Using your home fitness equipment regularly for 30 minutes on most days of the week, or completing more intense sessions for shorter periods of time is one thing you can do to bring your numbers into the healthy range (or keep them there). Recent research shows that exercise combined with statin medications lead to the greatest reduction in risk from a cardiovascular event (70 percent compared to 35 percent from medication alone!)
Although starting a medication for your cholesterol can be a little humbling, research and best practice are showing that treatment sooner rather than later is associated with a longer life for patients. If your total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides are higher than average, especially if lifestyle choices haven't done the trick for you, your doctor will probably talk to you about medications.
If you're researching your options, the FDA provides an overview of medications available to treat high cholesterol. Not every medication will work for every person, so make sure to keep the conversation open with your doctor. Also remember that your medication will be even more effective if you're making heart healthy choices related to diet and exercise.
Weigh In: How important is your heart health in choosing your home workouts and day to day diet?