Exercise and high cholesterol

High cholesterol is unfortunately a rather common problem in Australia. In 2014, two of the top three dispensed medications on the PBS were to treat high cholesterol, accounting for over 18 million visits to pharmacies across the year!

But why exactly does high cholesterol cause problems? Lets start with the basics….

Your body contains arteries, which are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart around your body. The inside of these arteries are fairly smooth, which means your blood can flow easily through your system. But over time, high cholesterol can have a negative effect on the inside of your arteries.

High levels of cholesterol, along with high blood pressure and smoking, is one of the main risk factors in causing something known as atherosclerosis. This is a condition where the arteries around your body become built up and blocked with plaque. This is bad for a number of reasons.

If the plaque becomes thick enough, it can restrict the flow of blood through the artery, and limit the amount of blood that reaches your organs. As a result, this can lead to medical conditions such as coronary heart disease, angina (or chest pain), and kidney disease, among other things.


In addition, small blood clots can form on a plaque within an artery. If one of these blood clots breaks free, or if a piece of the plaque itself becomes free, it can cause a total blockage of an artery. This is not a good scenario, as it can result in a heart attack or a stroke.

Unfortunately, there are no real symptoms of high cholesterol or atherosclerosis, until the damage has already been done. So its important to regularly see your GP to have your cholesterol checked. If you have high cholesterol, a lot can be done to help keep it low. Medications, weight reduction, changes in your eating habits and regular exercise can all be of benefit.

High cholesterol isn’t just limited to older, unhealthy people either. While a bad diet, being overweight and living a sedentary life can lead to high cholesterol, it can also be a genetic problem. So if you have a family history of high cholesterol, be sure to get yourself checked out on a regular basis.


Exercise is a great way to help keep your cholesterol under control. Getting around 30 minutes of exercise a day can help lower your cholesterol and keep you nice and healthy. By combining regular exercise with a healthy diet and weight loss, some people are able to reduce the dose of their cholesterol medication over time, or even stop taking it completely!

But what if you have neglected your health for a number of years, and have already developed atherosclerosis (or plaque build up)? Well, research has shown that low intensity exercise can help to reduce the risk of any problems as a result of your condition. Just be careful not to overdo it….exercising at a high intensity when your blood vessels are restricting blood flow around your body can actually lead to reduced oxygen supply to vital muscles, which can cause, among other things, a heart attack or a stroke.


The great news here is that cholesterol medications will have no effect on the sporting endeavours of the majority of the population…..and for competitive athletes, no cholesterol lowering medications are on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned substance list!

However, some cholesterol lowering agents, known as statins, have a couple of side effects which may negatively affect your performance. Rhabdomyolysis is a condition where muscle tissue is broken down, which is obviously not a great thing. But as it is a very rare side effect, typically affecting less than 0.01% of the population. A more commonly reported side effect of statins is “generalised muscle weakness and fatigue”. Reports are inconsistent on just how many people experience this problem though, varying from 1% to 20%! But if you do suffer from these side effects, there are many alternative medications to help keep your high cholesterol under control.

Statins can also lower the levels of CoEnzyme Q-10 (CoQ10) in your body. CoQ10 is an enzyme which your body naturally produces and utilizes for basic cell functions, in order to keep your body working properly. Unfortunately, there is only limited evidence that supplements of artificial CoQ10 actually show any benefits, especially in sporting performance.


While high cholesterol is a common problem experienced by many people, there is no reason for this medical condition to stop you from exercising or enjoying the sport you love. So get out there and keep active!

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