What can lifestyle changes do for you?

Lifestyle changes are an important part of cholesterol and heart disease risk control. Healthy lifestyle changes can help people lower high cholesterol levels. For some people, lifestyle changes alone may be enough to keep cholesterol at a healthy level. Others will need medications as well.

Even if you are taking medications to lower your cholesterol levels, remember that lifestyle changes are still important. Think of your medication as part of a healthy program involving diet and exercise.

Read on to learn more about the lifestyle changes that can help control cholesterol levels, and get tips to help you succeed with these changes.

Healthy body weight

The Canadian Cholesterol Guidelines recommend maintaining a healthy body weight to control cholesterol levels. You can tell if you are at a healthy weight by calculating your BMI (body mass index). Being overweight or obese (especially if you have a large waist size) is an important risk factor for developing heart disease that you can do something about. According to the guidelines, a large waist size is:

  • For people of European, Sub-Saharan African, Eastern Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern descent: More than 94 cm (37.0 inches) for men and more than 80 cm (31.5 inches) for women
  • For people of South Asian, Chinese, or Japanese descent: More than 90 cm (35.4 inches) for men and more than 80 cm (31.5 inches) for women

The Canadian Cholesterol Guidelines recommend keeping your BMI under 25, and to consider aiming for a BMI of less than 23 if you are of Asian descent.

The best way to maintain a healthy weight is by eating a healthy diet and exercising.

Diet and nutrition

By eating a healthier diet, you can improve your cholesterol and decrease your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

Here are some tips:

  • Eat lower-fat foods. Replace harmful fats with healthier fats. Saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol are the harmful fats. Healthier fats include poly- and mono-unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. Choose low-fat dairy products and lean meats – they have less fat overall, and are lower in saturated fats as well. When cooking, use oils with healthy fats such as olive, sunflower, safflower, and corn oil.
  • Eat more vegetables and fruit. Aim for 7 to 10 servings per day.
  • Increase the amount of soluble fibre in your diet. Foods such as oat bran, oatmeal, high-fibre cereals, legumes (such as beans, peas, and lentils), and fruits high in pectin (such as strawberries, oranges, apples, and grapefruit) are good sources of soluble fibre.
  • Try to eat fewer sweets, such as cookies and cakes.
  • Talk to your doctor or dietitian about establishing healthy habits and perhaps even about how many calories you should take in each day to maintain a healthy weight.
  • When eating out in a restaurant, try to select "heart healthy" choices if possible. This includes dishes that are steamed, baked, or roasted. Avoid foods that are fried, deep-fried, or breaded. Also avoid foods with creamy sauces. Ask for low-fat dressings or sauces, and get them on the side. Don't be afraid to ask how something is prepared or to make a special request. And beware of portion sizes. Many restaurants serve more food than you need for a single meal. Don't feel that you have to eat everything on your plate. Ask for a smaller portion size, share with a friend, or plan to take the leftovers home for a later meal.

Making these changes in your diet can be tough. The key is to do "everything in moderation." Enjoy the occasional sweet or fatty food – just don't make it a habit. Talk to your doctor and dietitian about which diet changes are right for you.


Regular exercise will help you lose weight and control your cholesterol.

Not sure where to start? Here are some exercise tips:

  • Aim for 150 minutes of moderate (such as brisk walking) to vigorous (such as jogging) physical activity per week. Physical activities you may want to try include swimming, walking, jogging, or cycling. Remember, you don't have to do it all at once. Try to do 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. If you can't block off 30 minutes, three 10-minute sessions can give you the same benefit.
  • If you're having trouble getting motivated, arrange to exercise with a friend or join a group class. Choose exercise activities that you will enjoy.
  • You should be comfortable and able to talk while exercising. If you feel dizzy, weak, or short of breath, or if you are in pain, stop.
  • There are other simple ways to increase your level of physical activity. Try taking the stairs or parking your car further away than usual. Gardening, yard work, and other household chores can also give you some exercise.

Be sure to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if you have heart disease or are taking any medications. Start slowly by setting goals that you can achieve and then challenging yourself as you become more fit.

Quitting smoking

Smoking can increase triglycerides and lower HDL cholesterol. Smokers have a 70% higher risk of developing heart disease than nonsmokers. Quitting smoking can also help people with the metabolic syndrome lower their risk of developing heart disease.

Here are some tips on quitting smoking:

  • The benefits of quitting start in the first 24 hours after your last cigarette.
  • There are many ways to quit smoking, including nicotine replacement, prescription medication, support programs, and going "cold turkey." Each person is unique and needs to find the way that works best for them. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what is right for you.
  • Visit the Health Canada website for links to programs and tips.
  • If you have already tried to quit and failed, don't worry! It usually takes many tries before you can quit for good. And each time you try, you get closer to your goal.

Moderate alcohol intake

Too much alcohol can increase your triglyceride (TG) levels and your blood pressure.

Here are some tips on keeping your alcohol consumption at a heart-healthy level:

  • Limit your alcohol intake to 2 drinks a day for women (maximum 10 drinks per week) or 3 drinks a day for men (maximum 15 drinks per week).
  • Keep in mind that one drink is equivalent to:
    • 341 mL (12 oz) of beer – about one bottle of beer, or
    • 142 mL (5 oz) of wine – about one small glass of wine, or
    • 43 mL (1.5 oz) of 40% (80-proof) spirits (hard liquor) – about one shot.
  • Avoid situations that pressure you into drinking too much. Get support from your family and friends, and tell them you are trying to cut back on drinking.

If you are concerned about how much you are drinking, talk to your doctor.