Study Proves Exercise Staves Off Bad Cholesterol

I’ve been in an exercise black hole since January 29th – the day I hurt my elbow shoveling. Since I had tennis elbow surgery 10 years ago, I knew this time to immediately stop playing tennis and quit spin to let my elbow heal. Suddenly it was 4 months later and I’ve gained weight and am out of the regular exercise habit.

YES, I could have done some other exercise. YES, I have both a treadmill and an elliptical in my home. NO, I didn’t use them and instead wallowed in my sadness that I’d reinjured my elbow.

And YES, I regret my sloth as I gained 5 pounds in four short months.

My elbow is still not 100% but now I’m on the slow path to regaining cardio fitness – and hopefully losing the weight that irks me daily as my jeans don’t fit.

And while exercise is harder than ever for me (getting old really bites: various body parts scream in protest when pushed), the good news is that a recent study of 11,000+ men proves that exercise may delay age-related high cholesterol levels.

An article entitled,The Effect of Cardiorespiratory Fitness on Age-Related Lipids and Lipoproteins was published online in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, on May 11, 2015. While I can’t read the actual article as it costs $35 to purchase (!) I’m writing based on several reputable sources who reported on this study.

Researchers used data from the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study in Dallas, Texas, collected from more than 11,000 men between 1970 and 2006 to assess total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides.

As Lisa Rapaport of Reuters reported in her article, Men Who Exercise May Delay Age-Related High Cholesterol, in the study, “researchers followed thousands of men over several decades, periodically drawing blood to test their cholesterol and then making them run on treadmills to measure their cardiorespiratory fitness. Men who could run longer and faster – signs that their bodies more easily deliver oxygen to muscles – also had lower cholesterol.”

“The better men did on fitness tests, the more likely they were to have lower total cholesterol, as well as lower levels of what’s known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the bad kind of cholesterol that builds up in blood vessels and can lead to atherosclerosis, blood clots and heart attacks.

Fitter men also had higher levels of so-called high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the good cholesterol that helps purge the bloodstream of LDL.

Men with higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels had better cholesterol profiles than less fit men from their early 20s until at least their early 60s, though the difference diminished with older age.

At the same time, men with lower fitness levels reached abnormal cholesterol levels before age 40.”

Said differently, unfit men were at risk of developing high cholesterol in their early 30s, but those with better fitness levels did not see it rise until their mid-40s, around 15 years later.

Dr. Gregg Fonarow, professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, was widely quoted about this article online: “Exercise is a vital component of achieving lifelong cardiovascular health. Regular physical activity and maintaining physical fitness has been shown to be associated with a lower risk of [heart attack], stroke, and premature cardiovascular death.”

How much exercise is needed? According to study co-author Dr. Xuemei Sui, an Assistant professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, to achieve the fitness levels necessary to ward off age-related high cholesterol, men should get 150 minutes a week of moderate activity (gardening, dancing, brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (jogging, running, swimming, cycling).

That’s 30 minutes of aerobic activity (a brisk walk!) five days a week, or 3-4 runs a week (or for me: tennis or spin 2-3 times a week).

Of course this study was done just with men. Actually, healthy white men. Of course that is incredibly frustrating. But I am going to go out on a limb and assume the same healthy benefits may confer on men and women in general.

And hope that getting back to the regular/daily exercise that will make my jeans fit again will also keep bad cholesterol at bay.

 

 

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Spinning to Cardio Fitness

Daily exercise is a key part of lowering cholesterol without medication, and in the long, cold winter months, my exercise of choice is tennis (and my real exercise is spin class.)

For those who’ve not tried it yet, spin class is an amazing cardiovascular workout.  Some shy away because they’ve heard it’s intense…and it can be. But it doesn’t have to be – if you’re curious, drop by your local gym or spin studio and try a class.  First class is often free and – like yoga – it’s best at least at first to go at your own pace and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. If you get hooked, like I did, you’ll find it’s a fun class that you can adjust as your fitness level improves – and believe me, after just 2-3 weeks of spin, you’ll be amazed at the change in your cardio fitness. (For more info about spinning, check out the explanation at the fun place I get to spin: Joyride.)

Why am I talking about spin class?  Well, I use spin class for straight-up cardio workouts all year long AND also to train for the Backroads bike trips we go on every two years.

When I’m not ‘training’ for an upcoming vacation (I know, I know, oxymoron to some – but for us, it’s really a blast) I spin – at most – just once or twice a week, and play tennis the rest of the time.  But one of the side benefits of these biking vacations is that you MUST get in shape or you won’t have fun – and that sends me to spin class about 3 times a week for the 3 months leading up to the trip.

Hence my two most recent posts about heart rate – where I could literally see my cardio improvement (and the reason for lapse in posting – first a technical issue with my site, then iffy wifi in Croatia.)

So spin got me in great cardio shape – but what it failed to do this time is to prepare me for the long, long hills we had to climb in Croatia.

Which is odd, because I’ve never had this problem before.  For our other bike trips, spin got me in great cardio AND hill-ready biking shape. Well, mostly – there was still that long, long walk-of-the-bike to the top of San Gimignano in Tuscany…but that was our very first trip 10 years ago and we had NO IDEA the level of hills we had signed up for!

My guess is this time, I didn’t amp up the resistance enough during class, though I thought I did.  OR it was that I didn’t do enough training with huge resistance on a SEATED climb, which his what most of the Backroads hills are – you are tackling a 5-7 kilometer hill and that’s far too long to stand on the bike – at least it is for me.

IMG_4916So this is me, next to the van that boosted me up a 7k hill that I chose not to ride (but the downhill part was a BLAST).  Truth be told, I didn’t boost up ALL the hills on this trip (and I’ve almost never boosted up a hill on other trips).  But the nature of this particular trip was you had to get to certain locations by certain times so you wouldn’t miss the boat that took you to the next island’s biking. So we took the van up certain (huge) hills so we could ride more of the route – and still make the boat.

I must say, I didn’t love taking the van up several hills. I’m, um, so intensely competitive that it was hard to convince myself that we were making a good CHOICE, not that we were failing. But that said, I need to do a little more research into how to use spin class to train for hills for our next trip. (Because I don’t feel safe biking where I live – crazy drivers.)

IMG_4989Luckily, I’ve got 2 years to work this out. And I really want to because where else but a Backroads trip can you see signs like this? All week we saw these crazy signs (but luckily we didn’t see the wild boar it warned of – though we did have a near run-in with a passel of sheep).

 

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I heart My Fitness Pal

Apologies for the lame post title, but I thought it fit with the lameness of the name of my new favorite app: My Fitness Pal. Why Mike and Albert Lee, the brothers-developers who created this wildly handy app, thought the word ‘pal’ was a good idea I’ll probably never know. But in the end I don’t care – because this app is awesome.

Though I will admit to the need of dropping a few post-holiday pounds, I was not in the market for an exercise or food tracking tool. I like love technology, sure, but the thought of tapping into my iPhone every single morsel of food that passed my lips sounded…let’s just say less than fun.

What made me try My Fitness Pal was this cholesterol-compelling NYT article. The opening paragraph made me both LOL (literally) AND groan with recognition (cross outs are mine):

“When I received the results of a routine cholesterol test this summer, I was certain there had been some kind of mistake.  I’m young, unstressed and healthy, or so I imagined. I work out, too, and most impartial observers — and some partial ones — would describe me as lean. Plus, I eat a nutritious diet, I swear. So why did my LDL levels surpass my I.Q. — or, for that matter, Einstein’s?

The facts were stark: My genes predisposed me…”

Read the whole article here.  It was page 2 that sold me on the (sadly-named) app where the author describes My Fitness Pal’s enormous food database. And I concur – it is EASY AS PIE (sorry) to find and enter meals and snacks.  Truly.

In the ten days I’ve used this app I’ve lost 2 pounds (!) but best of all, I’ve made different (better, more low cholesterol) food choices – and felt good great about it.

Like, I went to Wendy’s and ordered a (gasp) salad.

This has NEVER happened before. Two years of blogging about adopting a more lo-co lifestyle and every time I lunched at Wendy’s I still ordered my traditional single hamburger, small fries and small chocolate Frostee (and I don’t finish the fries or Frostee). Yes, they have salads and baked potatoes, but NO I never once ordered one. Instead I just tried to limit how often I went. Rather unsuccessfully. Then felt the guilt.

But MyFitnessPal caused me to alter my order.

What happened was this. There was a long line at Wendy’s so to pass the time, I used MyFitnessPal to type in what I considered my pretty-low-fat-for-fast-food typical order. I was horrified to find it had over 1,000 calories (my goal for the day was 1,500 calories!) and 128 grams of cholesterol.

YIKES!

If that’s what’s in my teeny tiny order, how many calories and cholesterol are in the double bacon and other burgers? No wonder America has an obesity problem.

So, still in line, I studied the ‘Healthy Choices’ posters and typed Apple Pecan Chicken Salad into iPhone’s MyFitnessPal app. This healthy choice has just 340 calories and 55 grams of cholesterol: much more appropriate to lunch (meaning, only 1/3 of my goal calories for the day). Not to mention, it was a far more lo-co choice than my usual.

So I ordered the salad, which is topped with WARM CHICKEN (the only way I’ll eat a salad – something  has to be hot!) and some blue cheese, and was shocked to find it was delicious pretty tasty.

And that smug feeling as I looked around at the overweight diners eating enormous burgers?  Priceless.

My MyFitnessPal victory (see, it’s just a bad name, all around) was not limited to this solo outing.  At dinner last night at our local diner, I tried Multigrain Pancakes instead of my usual 2 eggs-over-easy on whole wheat toast (no butter) with sausage links and home fries.  Didn’t love it, but loved that I’d made a  healthier dining out food choice twice in one week.

Astonishing.  I guess knowledge really is, um, power.

Another great thing about MyFitnessPal is that it helped me exercise every day. Yes, I know I’m supposed to exercise daily – and I do, a lot, but, well, never DAILY.  But I have for 10 days in a row. Why, you ask? Well, when you put in your desired weight loss you get a calorie goal for the day and you get more calories when you exercise. I wanted needed those calories for wine. And it worked. Daily exercise meant I got to have wine, guilt-free, every night and still be at my calorie (and cholesterol) limit. Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I exercised for 10 days in a row.

One last great thing about My Fitness Pal: this easy-to-use app helped me see just how lo-co my daily diet is – and the answer was surprisingly low cholesterol except for the eggs and sausage diner order.  That felt great.

For weight loss AND cholesterol counting, I can’t think of a single thing I’ve done in the past two years that I had more fun using & was more motivating than My Fitness Pal.

Oh, wait – I forgot.  The really great one last thing about My Fitness Pal — IT’S FREE.

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Cholesterol Results – Static, No Statins

Bless me, doctor, for I have sinned.  It’s been 11 months since my last cholesterol test. (Sorry, could not resist putting this in Catholic confessional format!)

So, I finally worked up the courage to have my cholesterol tested a few weeks ago and the news is – well – fine.  Not great.  No movement in the right direction.  Indeed, some movement in the wrong direction. BUT the following magic words were uttered by my doctor, “We can keep monitoring – no need to start you on statins.”

She didn’t say ‘yet’ but I know she was thinking it.

Some of my friends/blog readers have been asking me to report actual results.  I’ve hesitated because I’m not sure the actual numbers are relevant.  But maybe it would be helpful to share – so geek that I am, I graphed my cholesterol test results.

 

Not a graph geek?  Prefer words to numbers and line charts?  Here’s a summary:

The February 2002 and August 2008 were ‘baseline’ results from regular physicals. Following the red line, you can see the 228 and 211 total cholesterol levels that are a result of my family history of high cholesterol. Sigh.

The big spike up in August 2010 – total cholesterol of 267 and a big bump up in LDL (bad) cholesterol – were alarming.  Indeed, that was the impetus for starting this blog to learn more about cholesterol and manage it via diet and exercise to stay off statins.

The last three data points – March 2011, November 2011 and October 2012 show that my blog/focus on diet and exercise to keep my cholesterol in check have been relatively successful. Since starting the blog, here’s what’s happened:

  • Total Cholesterol in 2011 was down at the 225 range, which is decent for me.  But my latest 239 number reflects my faltering discipline in recent months. Probably I’ll never meet ‘goal’ of  under 200, but clearly I did better in 2011…gotta’ get focus back.
  • Triglyceride level is stubbornly hovering above the 130 goal. As explained in Do You Know Your Non-HDL Cholesterol, I need to cut starches and impose a limit of 1 glass of wine per night.  This is proving to be my Waterloo.
  • HDL (good) cholesterol is increasing, which is good.  This can be counter-intutitive… so think of H for HDL – and that you want this number to be HIGH.
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol went up to 138, which is not good.  (Think of L for LDL – and that you want this number to be LOW.) As I stopped taking Metamucil and fish oil pills in recent months, I need to get back on the right eating/exercising track and see what happens.

So that’s where things stand.  Not a lot of change, but one amazing result: no Lipitor for me. Sorry Pfizer, but goal met.  Woot.

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Back in the Lo-Co Saddle

After weeks of lo-co failure, victory at last.  Last night I cooked dinner for the first time in weeks (a boring chicken breast, brown rice pilaf, steamed string beans – nothing exciting but at least it was healthy.)  And today I re-started my lo-co morning routine of Metamucil followed by Centrum Cardio and Fish Oil pills.

Let the celebration begin.

It’s amazing how easily I got derailed.  It started off with just being busy – the typical end-of-school-year insanity.  Add to that my son’s HS spring sport and dinners flew out the window.  And then I ended up with pneumonia – and the only good thing I can say about that is that I lost weight.  (Though now that I’m on the upswing – 2 long weeks later – I have sadly gained it all back).

In all these weeks, I think the last thing I cooked was Toaster Oven Chicken. If I took a cholesterol test right now, I am sure I’d be horrified.

So naturally I googled ‘how long does it take to lower your cholesterol’ and found this  ‘11 Tips to Cut Your Cholesterol Fast‘ WebMD article.  Ignoring the syntax issues all around – and the ‘tip’ about medication (remember, WebMD is supported by big pharma) –  this article reminded me that what I had been doing was the right thing.

I didn’t agree with the first two tips, but here’s a recap of the things I found most useful vis-a-vis kick-starting my lo-co lifestyle:

  1. ‘Get Moving‘  Ah, exercise.  This, I need to be careful with as I’m still exhausted from the pneumonia – but we are going on a bike trip in Italy in June, so as soon as I am able to, it’s back to 2x/week spin class!
  2. ‘Avoid Saturated Fat’  Glad to learn it’s not eggs that are the big issue…
  3. ‘Eat More Fiber’  Metamucil – and veggies – here I come.
  4. ‘Go Fish’  I have re-instituted my bagel and lox for breakfast – not every day, but some days.  Life’s too short for cereal everyday and I just can’t get on board with the oatmeal thing. And, of course, now that I’m off the anti-biotic and mucinex routine, have added back my Fish Oil pills that I probably shouldn’t have stopped but that was too many pills to deal with…
  5. ‘Drink Up’ – Haven’t had wine in weeks, but looking forward to some!
  6. ‘Drink Green’ – The benefits of green tea in lowering cholesterol are new to me – something to research.
  7. ‘Eat Nuts’ – snacking on almonds reminder – had a  bag yesterday.

Wish me luck. Apparently, I need it.

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