I’m 49 this year. Two and a half years ago my doctor told me that my HDL (aka “good”) cholesterol was borderline low (39) and my LDL (aka “bad”) was borderline high (140), and that even though my triglyceride count was low, she was concerned about the trend. I could improve those numbers using drugs or through diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes. I don’t like creating a permanent change with drugs unless necessary, so I chose option B. A cardiologist I know said he wouldn’t settle for an HDL count of lower than 75, and I’d read that 60 is the recommended minimum (even though 45 is considered acceptable). So my 12-month goal was to increase HDL to at least 60 and continue the upward trend, and to get LDL under 100 and protect it with antioxidants (via supplements and foods).
My homework said the best way to increase HDL, short of prescription doses of niacin or newer cholesterol-effecting drugs, was through regular vigorous exercise, with some minor help from diet–some of the foods that help boost or maintain HDL also may lower LDL, so my new diet could work toward both cholesterol goals.
I was already reasonably fit, so it wasn’t too hard to boost exercise to an hour a day, 5 to 6 days a week—for me that meant running outside or on the treadmill, or using the handy elliptical machine at work. I dug into the oatmeal-for-breakfast routine, cut all but the occasional meat and starches out my diet, and ate more plants and soy and nuts. It wasn’t so bad, and after awhile I felt better and was able to stop coveting what my kids were eating and stare down the monthly pizza lunches. (I might have been brainwashed by then—I mean, turn down pizza?)
After a year, I’d dropped a bunch of weight (reaching a healthy BMI), lowered my LDL to 90 and raised my HDL to 60. My doctor’s office told me I was their new poster child for diet and exercise.
I figured it was the exercise that gave me the boost—the HDL molecules do the hard work and if I kept my diet high in antioxidants to protect the LDLs, I could start eating more of what I’d been missing.
Yesterday, I received blood work results from his year’s checkup: HDL, 45; LDL 120. Heart like a lion, but a bloodstream leaning toward a buttery scone. I swore a little, but suspected those results were coming. Our biochemistry is too complex to get away with staying healthy via a single solution like exercise.
So, it’s back to plan B, that combo of exercise and, more importantly, dietary changes, for the rest of my life. I’m glad I have a chance to supersize of the “rest of my life” on my terms. Luckily for me (in so many ways), my wife has independently made the same decisions about her diet. I hope I can stick with it. If you’re making similar decisions, I hope the same for you.
This entry will also appear in my employer’s upcoming “tell your wellness story” blog.