Understanding High Cholesterol

Published - Sep 20, 2023

Understanding High Cholesterol

Clinically reviewed by Julie Mahler, MS, RDN, CD, registered dietitian nutritionist at IRG Physical Therapy – Gateway

High cholesterol, a prevalent health concern worldwide, has been associated with a range of cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks and strokes. Understanding the causes, risks, and effective ways to reduce cholesterol levels is crucial for maintaining heart health and preventing related complications.

Causes of High Cholesterol

  1. Dietary Choices: A significant contributor to high cholesterol is the consumption of a diet rich in saturated and trans fats. Foods such as red meat, full-fat dairy products, and fried and processed foods can raise LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels, often referred to as "bad" cholesterol.
  2. Genetics: Some individuals are genetically predisposed to high cholesterol due to familial hypercholesterolemia. This condition results in an overproduction or reduced clearance of LDL cholesterol, leading to elevated levels in the blood.
  3. Sedentary Lifestyle: Physical inactivity can lower HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol that helps remove LDL from the bloodstream. Lack of regular exercise can contribute to higher cholesterol levels.
  4. Obesity: Excess body weight, particularly in the form of abdominal fat, is linked to higher cholesterol levels. Obesity can disrupt the balance between good and bad cholesterol.
  5. Smoking: Smoking damages blood vessels and reduces HDL cholesterol levels. It also promotes the accumulation of fatty deposits in the arteries, increasing the risk of atherosclerosis.
  6. Age and Gender: Cholesterol levels tend to rise with age, and post-menopausal women are at a higher risk of elevated LDL cholesterol levels due to hormonal changes.

Risks Associated with High Cholesterol

  1. Cardiovascular Disease: Elevated LDL cholesterol levels contribute to the development of atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by the buildup of plaque in the arteries. This can lead to heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases.
  2. Hypertension: High cholesterol can be linked to high blood pressure, another significant risk factor for heart disease. The combination of these conditions intensifies the risk of cardiovascular events.
  3. Peripheral Artery Disease: Narrowed arteries caused by atherosclerosis can impede blood flow to the limbs, leading to peripheral artery disease. This can result in pain, limited mobility, and in severe cases, amputation.
  4. Xanthomas: High cholesterol levels can cause deposits of cholesterol-rich material under the skin, known as xanthomas. These are often found around the eyes or tendons and can be indicative of an underlying cholesterol problem.
  5. Pancreatitis: Extremely high levels of triglycerides, a type of blood fat, can lead to pancreatitis, a painful inflammation of the pancreas.

How to Reduce Cholesterol Levels

  1. Healthy Diet: Adopting a diet low in saturated and trans fats is essential for managing cholesterol. Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and foods rich in soluble fiber, such as oats and beans. These dietary changes can help lower LDL cholesterol.
  2. Exercise: Regular physical activity can boost HDL cholesterol and reduce LDL cholesterol. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, such as brisk walking, cycling or swimming.
  3. Weight Management: Maintaining a healthy weight can improve cholesterol levels. Losing excess weight, especially abdominal fat, can lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol.
  4. Smoking Cessation: Quitting smoking is vital for overall heart health. Within months of quitting, the risk of heart disease begins to decline, and cholesterol levels can improve.
  5. Medications: In cases of familial hypercholesterolemia or when lifestyle changes alone are insufficient, cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins, may be prescribed by a healthcare professional.
  6. Regular Checkups: Regular cholesterol screenings and medical checkups can help monitor cholesterol levels and assess cardiovascular risk. This allows for timely interventions if necessary.

High cholesterol is a common health issue with serious implications for heart health and overall well-being. Understanding the causes, risks, and strategies for reducing cholesterol levels is crucial for preventing cardiovascular diseases. By adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and regular exercise, individuals can effectively manage their cholesterol levels and reduce the associated risks.

Physical therapy plays a vital role in promoting an active lifestyle and reducing high cholesterol levels. Therapists design tailored exercise programs that enhance cardiovascular health, encouraging regular physical activity to lower cholesterol levels. Additionally, physical therapists and registered dietician nutritionists educate patients on lifestyle modifications, dietary choices, and stress management techniques that collectively contribute to a healthier, cholesterol-friendly lifestyle, ultimately reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.


  1. American Heart Association. (2021). Cholesterol. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2021). High Cholesterol. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800
  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2021). Lowering Your Cholesterol with TLC. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/lower-your-cholesterol
  4. Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). How to Lower Your Cholesterol Without Drugs. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/how-to-lower-your-cholesterol-without-drugs


IRG can help you on the journey to better health through movement and nutrition. Our physical therapists can work with you to become and to stay active. Learn more by calling 425.686.7660 or click here to make an appointment at your neighborhood location.

If you are looking for guidance on ways to manage your cholesterol with diet, IRG’s registered dietitian nutritionist, Julie Mahler, MS, RDN, CD, can help. With specialized training in obesity and weight management, Julie can help counsel you for many nutritional needs.

Learn more about service offerings at IRG here, including physical therapy, hand therapy, massage therapy, performance enhancement, athletic training and more.