Best Exercise for Lowering Cholesterol Naturally: Walking or Running?

The harder you work, the better the results? What's the best exercise for lowering cholesterol naturally? The answer might surprise you.

man and woman exercising to lower their cholesterol

For lowering cholesterol naturally and reducing your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, walking can’t be beat.

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The harder you work, the better the results, right? Not so, according to a recent study. What’s the best exercise for lowering cholesterol? This study found walking works just as well as running not only for lowering cholesterol naturally, but for reducing the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes too.

Surprisingly, the results of the study published in the American Heart Association journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology showed that brisk walking is actually a little better than running as an exercise for lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure. And, walking is just as good as running for lowering your risk of diabetes.

The researchers’ objective was to test whether equivalent energy expenditure by moderate-intensity (eg, walking) and vigorous-intensity exercise (eg, running) provides equivalent health benefits. “Walking and running provide an ideal test of the health benefits of moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity running because they involve the same muscle groups and the same activities performed at different intensities,” said Paul T. Williams, PhD, the study’s principal author and a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Distance is More Important Than Speed for Lowering Cholesterol Naturally

Researchers analyzed 33,060 runners in the National Runners’ Health Study and 15,045 walkers in the National Walkers’ Health Study over six years. Unlike previous studies, the researchers assessed walking and running expenditure by distance, not by time. They found that if the same amount of energy is expended, moderate intensity walking and vigorous intensity running result in similar risk reductions for these conditions. In other words, distance is more important than speed, and therefore taking a brisk, two-mile walk will earn you the same health benefits as a running that same distance in terms of lowering your risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

“The more the runners ran and the walkers walked, the better off they were in health benefits. If the amount of energy expended was the same between the two groups, then the health benefits were comparable,” said Williams.

Energy expenditure was compared to diagnosis of hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, and coronary heart disease. Results showed:

  • The risk for getting diagnosed with high cholesterol was reduced 4.3% by running and 7% by walking.
  • The risk for getting diagnosed with hypertension was reduced 4.2% by running and 7.2% by walking.
  • The risk for getting diagnosed with diabetes was reduced 12.1% by running and 12.3% by walking.
  • The risk for coronary heart disease was lowered 4.5% by running and 9.3% by walking.

Slow and Steady Gets You There

One thing to keep in mind is that a runner may cover the same distance as a walker in about half the time (or do twice as much in the same amount of time). Because they can do about twice as much in an hour, runners tend to exercise twice as much as walkers. This explains why we still may perceive running as superior for lowering cholesterol naturally and reducing cardiovascular risk. But for runners and walkers who go the same distance, the study results showed they end up with similar reductions in the risk for hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and possibly coronary heart disease. Cardiologist Paul D. Thompson, MD, a study author and medical director of cardiology and the Athletes’ Heart Program at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, explained it this way, “…the faster you are, the faster the results. But slow and steady gets you to the same point.”

Gradually Work Up to Longer Walking Distances for Best Results

This study shows you don’t need to push yourself very hard in terms of your walking or running intensity or speed in order to benefit. For lowering cholesterol naturally and reducing your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, walking can’t be beat. As with all types of exercise, if you’re not in shape, start slow! Work up to longer distances slowly and gradually to avoid injury.

In addition to walking and other forms of exercise, foods, supplements, and integrative therapies work for lowering cholesterol naturally. The key is knowing which ones are safe and well-researched, and exactly how to best utilize them for optimal effectiveness. To find out, browse our Cholesterol Control section or view our comprehensive guide, Natural Cholesterol Control: Achieve Healthy Cholesterol Levels Without Drugs.

[1] Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2013 May;33(5):1085-91.

Originally published in 2013, this post is regularly updated.

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UHN Staff

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