High cholesterol? Take a hike

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NEWS FOR HEALTHY LIVING

PALO ALTO, CALIF.

IF YOU'RE WORRIED about your heart, eat less fat. Experts of every stripe--from public health officials to doctors to your spouse--will tell you that. But new research suggests that changing to a low-fat diet isn't enough: To make a dent in your cholesterol readings, you need to exercise as well.

Physiologist Marcia Stefanick and colleagues at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention rounded up 377 men and women between the ages of 30 and 64 whose levels of bad cholesterol, or LDL, were between 125 and 210--worrisome numbers but not high enough to warrant drug treatment. The subjects also had low counts of good cholesterol (HDL).

People with this profile are typically advised to follow a low-fat diet designed by the National Cholesterol Education Program's panel of heart specialists. So Stefanick had one group of the volunteers do just that, while she asked another to combine the diet with three hours of exercise per week.

Then she sat back and watched, checking up on the participants from time to time in order to see how they were faring.

After a year she found that bad cholesterol counts hadn't budged for the group that just reduced their fat intake. But levels in the men and women who were exercising as well as dieting had fallen by as much as 13 percent. Neither group achieved a big rise in good cholesterol, but the improved numbers in the diet-and-exercise group lowered individuals' risk of heart disease by 15 to 20 percent.

Unlike other studies on diet and cholesterol, this one was a slice of life: The subjects ate meals prepared in their own homes, not in a lab, and walked the streets of their neighborhoods, not on a supervised treadmill. The freedom of choice may be a reason the eating plan failed: People tended to opt for more high-calorie fat-free foods instead of proven cholesterol fighters such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

The results underline the value of even light exercise, says Stefanick. (Many of the participants walked as little as nine miles a week.) "If reducing heart disease risk is your goal," she says, "you shouldn't monkey around with thinking diet alone can do it."

PHOTO (COLOR): High cholesterol? Take a hike

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By Christie Aschwanden; Michael Mason and Rob Waters

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