Understanding Your HDL Cholesterol Needs: Genetics and Exercise Insights

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The Science Behind High-Density Lipoprotein: Genetics and Exercise Insights

Date of Content: November 5, 2023
Written by: Jess Gayo
Reviewed by: Maarit Tiirikainen, PhD



What is HDL Cholesterol?

High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is the unsung hero of cardiovascular health, sometimes referred to as the “good cholesterol.” It is the body’s defense against heart disease and not just a number on a blood test; learning how to boost it is the route to a happier, healthier heart. 

In the bloodstream, HDL cholesterol scavenges excess cholesterol from cells and tissues, including the walls of arteries, and carries it to the liver where it is excreted.

Reverse cholesterol transfer is a procedure that lowers the risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disorders by preventing cholesterol from accumulating in the arteries. Due to its role in maintaining the overall balance of cholesterol in the body, maintaining high levels of HDL cholesterol is linked to a decreased risk of heart disease.

hdl cholesterol

How Does Exercise Help Manage HDL Cholesterol?

To control total cholesterol levels, including the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and to support cardiovascular health, exercise is essential. An increase in HDL cholesterol has been repeatedly associated with regular physical activity. 

High-intensity physical activities, like running, cycling, swimming, or brisk walking, increase the production of HDL cholesterol. The length and intensity of exercise affect how much of an impact it has. In addition to raising HDL levels, aerobic exercise also lowers triglycerides, which improves the lipid profile overall.

Additionally, exercise helps people control their weight and lose extra body fat, which is linked to increased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad cholesterol” levels. To optimize lipid profiles and lower the risk of cardiovascular illnesses, it is imperative to maintain a healthy weight.

Regular physical activity also enhances insulin sensitivity and lowers inflammation, both of which are factors influencing lipid metabolism and cardiovascular health. Additionally, exercise positively affects other cardiovascular risk factors, including blood pressure and endothelial function.

What Affects HDL Levels?

The “good cholesterol” is impacted by several variables that affect cardiovascular health. Maintaining heart health requires an understanding of the factors that impact HDL levels. 


A person’s genetic makeup, lifestyle, and general health all influence the delicate balance of HDL and LDL in the blood. These levels are significantly shaped by underlying medical issues, physical activity, smoking habits, and diet. Examining these factors can help develop practical plans for preserving ideal HDL cholesterol levels and lowering the risk of cardiovascular illnesses.

Genetic Factors

Genetic factors play a significant role in determining an individual’s HDL cholesterol levels. Several genetic variants have been identified that can influence HDL cholesterol, shedding light on the hereditary components of cardiovascular health. Understanding these markers is essential for personalized risk assessment and preventive strategies.


Gene polymorphisms in peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs) and their coactivators (PPARGC1A, PPARGC1B) have been linked to the outcomes of aerobic training. Findings reveal that carriers of certain gene variants may exhibit specific responses, impacting factors such as HDL levels, oxygen uptake, muscle fiber composition, and glucose metabolism. 


Certain genetic variants in lipoprotein lipase (LPL) and hepatic lipase (LIPC) impact HDL-C levels differently based on physical activity. Specifically, the effects of the LPL variant on heart attack risk vary with activity levels.


The Cholesteryl Ester Transfer Protein (CETP) gene plays a role in lipid metabolism by facilitating the transfer of cholesteryl esters between lipoproteins. Certain genetic variations in CETP are associated with elevated HDL cholesterol levels. Individuals with these variations may experience increased efficiency in the transfer of cholesterol to HDL particles.

APOA1 and APOC3 Genes

Apolipoprotein A1 (APOA1) is a major structural component of HDL particles, while Apolipoprotein C3 (APOC3) is involved in triglyceride metabolism. Variations in these genes can affect the synthesis and function of apolipoproteins, influencing HDL metabolism and levels.

Gaining knowledge about these genetic markers can help one better understand how HDL cholesterol control is influenced by genetics, especially when combined with exercise. Although heredity is a major component, lifestyle factors that affect cardiovascular health include nutrition, physical exercise, and smoking behaviors.

To effectively manage HDL cholesterol levels and lower the risk of cardiovascular illnesses, personalized treatments that take both lifestyle and genetic factors into account are crucial.

Environmental Factors

A person’s lifestyle choices can affect a variety of environmental conditions that also greatly influence HDL cholesterol levels. It is essential to comprehend these elements to put plans into action that will enhance heart health and optimize lipid profiles.

Dietary Habits

Levels of HDL cholesterol are significantly influenced by the types of fats that are taken in the diet. HDL levels can be lowered by trans and saturated fats, which are frequently present in processed and fried foods. Adding unsaturated fats, on the other hand, including those in avocados, rich fish, and olive oil, can raise HDL cholesterol.

Physical Activity

Regular exercise is a powerful modulator of HDL cholesterol. Engaging in aerobic activities, such as jogging, swimming, or cycling, increases HDL levels. Exercise not only directly raises HDL but also contributes to overall cardiovascular health by reducing other risk factors.

Smoking and Tobacco Use

Smoking has detrimental effects on HDL cholesterol. It not only lowers HDL levels but also contributes to the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, increasing the risk of atherosclerosis. Quitting smoking can lead to an improvement in HDL cholesterol levels and overall cardiovascular health.

Body Weight

Excess body weight, particularly abdominal obesity, is associated with lower levels of HDL cholesterol. Weight loss, achieved through a combination of healthy diet and regular exercise, can lead to an increase in HDL levels.

Alcohol Consumption

Moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with higher HDL cholesterol levels. However, it’s essential to emphasize moderation, as excessive alcohol intake can have adverse effects on overall health.

Diabetes and Insulin Resistance

Individuals with diabetes or insulin resistance often experience alterations in lipid metabolism, including decreased HDL levels. Managing blood sugar levels through a balanced diet, regular exercise, and, if necessary, medication, can positively impact HDL cholesterol.

Hormonal Influences

Hormonal changes, such as those occurring during menopause in women, can affect HDL levels. Hormone replacement therapy may be considered in certain cases, but it should be approached cautiously, considering individual health risks and benefits.

Chronic Inflammatory Conditions

Chronic inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus, can impact HDL cholesterol. Managing inflammation through appropriate medical care and lifestyle interventions is crucial for maintaining cardiovascular health.


Certain medications, including beta-blockers, anabolic steroids, and some hormonal contraceptives, can influence HDL cholesterol levels. Individuals taking these medications should discuss potential effects on lipid profiles with their healthcare providers.

Sleep Patterns

Inadequate or poor-quality sleep has been associated with alterations in lipid metabolism, including lower HDL levels. Prioritizing healthy sleep habits is an essential component of overall cardiovascular health.

Environmental factors play a substantial role in determining HDL cholesterol levels. A heart-healthy lifestyle can have a good impact on HDL cholesterol and lower the risk of cardiovascular illnesses.

This lifestyle includes avoiding tobacco use, eating balanced and nutritious food, and getting frequent exercise. It is advised that people collaborate closely with medical practitioners to customize lifestyle treatments to meet their unique health needs and objectives.

What Food Contains Plenty of HDL Cholesterol?

Even though the body synthesizes HDL, some meals can help to maintain or raise HDL levels. A balanced diet can contain a wide variety of foods that may improve overall lipid profiles.

  • Fatty Fish: Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats not only contribute to higher HDL levels but also offer cardiovascular benefits by reducing inflammation and improving blood vessel function.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are excellent sources of heart-healthy fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Regular consumption has been associated with increased HDL cholesterol and improved lipid profiles.
  • Olive Oil: Extra virgin olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and is rich in monounsaturated fats. It has been linked to higher levels of HDL cholesterol and possesses anti-inflammatory properties that benefit heart health.
  • Avocado: Avocados are a nutrient-dense fruit containing monounsaturated fats. They not only contribute to higher HDL levels but also provide other essential nutrients, such as fiber and potassium.
  • Whole Grains: Foods such as oats, barley, quinoa, and brown rice contain soluble fiber, which has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber helps remove cholesterol from the body by binding to it in the digestive system.
  • Legumes: Lentils, beans, and chickpeas are rich in both soluble fiber and plant-based proteins. Including these in the diet can positively influence lipid profiles, including HDL cholesterol.
  • Fruits and Berries: Some fruits, such as apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruits, contain compounds that may contribute to higher HDL levels. These fruits are also rich in antioxidants, providing additional cardiovascular benefits.
  • Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate, in moderation, has been associated with increased HDL cholesterol levels. Look for chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content to maximize its potential benefits.
  • Green Tea: Green tea contains catechins, antioxidants that may contribute to improved cholesterol levels, including higher HDL. Regular consumption of green tea is associated with various cardiovascular benefits.
  • Foods Fortified with Plant Sterols: Some fortified foods, such as certain kinds of margarine and orange juices, contain plant sterols that can help lower LDL cholesterol and, in some cases, promote a healthier balance with HDL cholesterol.

A well-balanced diet that includes a range of these items and a healthy lifestyle can help to maintain or raise HDL cholesterol levels, which supports cardiovascular health in general.

Although these foods can raise HDL levels, cutting back on saturated and trans fats is also a key component of a heart-healthy diet. Seek advice from a qualified dietician or healthcare expert who can offer tailored recommendations based on specific health requirements.

What Types of Exercise Help Boost HDL Levels?

Regular physical activity is a powerful lifestyle factor that can positively influence HDL cholesterol levels. Various types of exercise have been shown to boost HDL levels and contribute to overall cardiovascular health.

  • Aerobic Exercise: Aerobic or cardiovascular exercises, such as brisk walking, running, cycling, swimming, and dancing, are particularly effective in raising HDL cholesterol levels. These activities increase heart rate and respiratory function, promoting the circulation of blood and the removal of excess cholesterol from the bloodstream.
  • Interval Training: High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) involves alternating short bursts of intense exercise with periods of lower-intensity activity or rest. HIIT has been shown to improve HDL cholesterol levels and provide cardiovascular benefits in a shorter amount of time compared to traditional steady-state exercises.
  • Resistance Training: Strength or resistance training, including weightlifting and bodyweight exercises, contributes to overall fitness and can positively impact HDL levels. Engaging in resistance training helps build muscle mass which can enhance metabolism and contribute to favorable changes in lipid profiles.
  • Circuit Training: Circuit training involves a series of strength or aerobic exercises performed in succession with minimal rest between them. This type of exercise combines both aerobic and resistance elements, offering a comprehensive workout that can benefit HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Swimming: Swimming is an excellent full-body workout that engages multiple muscle groups. It provides cardiovascular benefits and has been associated with increased HDL cholesterol levels. The buoyancy of water also reduces the impact on joints, making it suitable for individuals with joint concerns.
  • Rowing: Rowing is a low-impact, full-body exercise that engages various muscle groups. It can be an effective way to boost cardiovascular fitness and contribute to favorable changes in HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Cycling: Both stationary and outdoor cycling are effective forms of aerobic exercise. Cycling engages the lower body muscles and can be tailored to different fitness levels, making it a versatile option for improving cardiovascular health and HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Dancing: Whether it’s Zumba, aerobics, or other dance-based workouts, dancing is a fun and effective way to get the heart pumping. It combines aerobic and rhythmic elements, contributing to improved cardiovascular fitness.
  • CrossFit: CrossFit involves a mix of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and high-intensity movements. The varied and intense nature of CrossFit workouts can contribute to cardiovascular fitness and impact HDL cholesterol levels positively.
  • Yoga: While not primarily an aerobic exercise, certain types of yoga that involve dynamic movements and sequences can contribute to cardiovascular health. Additionally, yoga has been associated with stress reduction, which can indirectly impact lipid profiles, including HDL cholesterol.

Getting cardiovascular benefits depends on the frequency, duration, and intensity of exercise. A well-rounded fitness regimen that includes strength training, flexibility training, and aerobic workouts can help raise HDL cholesterol levels and improve general heart health.

To customize an exercise program based on their unique fitness levels and health demands, people should speak with healthcare providers or fitness specialists.

Ways to Maintain Good Levels of HDL Cholesterol

Reducing the risk of cardiovascular illnesses and supporting heart health depends on maintaining adequate levels of HDL cholesterol. Maintaining or raising HDL levels can be accomplished in part by implementing a holistic strategy that includes healthy lifestyle choices.

Regular Physical Activity

Engaging in regular aerobic exercises, such as brisk walking, running, swimming, or cycling, has been consistently linked to higher levels of HDL cholesterol. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

Quit Smoking

Smoking is a significant risk factor for heart disease and negatively impacts HDL cholesterol levels. Quitting smoking can lead to positive changes in HDL levels and provide numerous other health benefits.

Healthy Diet Choices

Adopting a heart-healthy diet is essential. Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like fatty fish, can also contribute to higher HDL levels.

Limit Saturated and Trans Fats

Reduce the intake of saturated and trans fats found in processed and fried foods. These fats can contribute to higher levels of LDL cholesterol, which can negatively impact the balance between HDL and LDL.

Moderate Alcohol Consumption

Some studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may be associated with higher HDL levels. However, it’s crucial to limit alcohol intake to moderate levels, as excessive alcohol consumption can have adverse health effects.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall cardiovascular health. Losing excess weight can positively influence HDL cholesterol levels and other lipid parameters.

Include Healthy Fats

Incorporate sources of healthy fats into your diet, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. These fats can contribute to higher HDL levels and improve the overall lipid profile.

Manage Stress

Chronic stress can impact lipid metabolism and contribute to unfavorable changes in cholesterol levels. Adopt stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or other relaxation methods.

Get Adequate Sleep

Poor sleep quality and insufficient sleep have been associated with adverse effects on lipid profiles, including lower HDL levels. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night.

Consider Medications if Necessary

In some cases, healthcare professionals may prescribe medications to manage cholesterol levels. Statins and other medications may be recommended for individuals with persistent lipid imbalances, despite lifestyle modifications.

Different people react differently to lifestyle modifications, and cholesterol levels are also influenced by genetic factors. Regular check-ups with medical specialists, which include lipid profile evaluations, can give valuable information about a person’s health state and help to customize strategies for keeping healthy HDL cholesterol levels. Combining these lifestyle choices enhances general well-being in addition to promoting cardiovascular health.

LifeDNA’s HDL Cholesterol and Exercise Report

Unlock the secrets to a healthier you with LifeDNA’s HDL Cholesterol and Exercise Report. Discover personalized insights into how your genetic makeup influences the impact of exercise on your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels. Take control of your cardiovascular health by understanding how your genes respond to different exercise routines.

But that’s not all – explore a holistic approach to well-being with our other reports. Dive into the Blood Pressure and Exercise Report to optimize your cardiovascular fitness. Achieve your weight management goals with the Weight Loss and Exercise Report, tailoring your workouts to your genetic blueprint. Uncover the keys to balanced blood sugar with insights from the Insulin Sensitivity and Exercise Report.

Explore the full suite of reports for a comprehensive understanding of your genetic fitness profile. Take the first step and read your HDL Cholesterol and Exercise Report today


  • The unsung hero of cardiovascular health is high-density lipoprotein or HDL; it’s also known as the “good cholesterol.”
  • HDL cholesterol scavenges excess cholesterol from cells and tissues in the bloodstream, including artery walls, and transports it to the liver for excretion. 
  • A lower risk of heart disease is associated with maintaining high levels of HDL cholesterol because of its function in preserving the body’s overall cholesterol balance.
  • A person’s lifestyle, general health, and genetic composition all affect the delicate balance of HDL and LDL in the blood. Physical activity, smoking, nutrition, and underlying medical conditions all have a major impact on these levels. 
  • HDL cholesterol levels can be maintained or increased with a healthy lifestyle and a well-balanced diet.
  • Exercise of various kinds has also been demonstrated to raise HDL levels and improve cardiovascular health in general.
  • It is possible to tailor strategies for maintaining appropriate HDL cholesterol levels and obtain important information about an individual’s health status through routine check-ups with medical specialists, which include lipid profile exams. 


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/ldl_hdl.htm
  2. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/atherosclerosis#:~:text=Atherosclerosis%20thickening%20or%20hardening%20of,products%2C%20calcium%2C%20and%20fibrin.
  3. https://medlineplus.gov/ldlthebadcholesterol.html
  4. https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/19/5/1472
  5. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCGENETICS.110.957290
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16705465/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34269662/
  8. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318598#:~:text=Consume%20olive%20oil&text=A%20large%20analysis%20of%2042,an%20increase%20in%20HDL%20cholesterol.
  9. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/cholesterol-healthy-eating-tips
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10003711/

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