Teak V. Lee, B.S.
What’s the first thought that comes to mind when the word “cholesterol” is mentioned? More often than not, it’s probably going to be negative. This is probably due to the bad reputation that cholesterol has gained because of its involvement in conditions such as cardiovascular disease. However, before we can make a conclusion, we need to understand the roles cholesterol plays in our bodies and the circumstances when it causes harm.
Cholesterol serves many purposes in our bodies. Several hormones, including testosterone and vitamin D, are produced from cholesterol. Cholesterol can also be found in the cell membrane, which is the barrier separating the inside and outside of a cell. Cholesterol permits the membrane to be fluid and allows the cell to communicate with its environment. With this knowledge in mind, we can now examine the circumstances when cholesterol is problematic. The biggest issue occurs when there is excessive cholesterol. This excess becomes available for deposition into artery walls, which can reduce blood flow and support plaque formation.
Fortunately, solutions are available to counteract and possibly prevent these problems. One solution involves using that excess cholesterol so it won’t be available to cause harm. Resistance exercise (RE) may be able to accomplish this. One study reported that greater dietary cholesterol consumption was associated with greater lean mass (muscle) gains after 12 weeks of RE in older adults. It has been proposed that the cholesterol helps to repair damage and to build new muscle. Since cholesterol is a component of cell membranes and muscles are composed of cells, this hypothesis appears plausible. As exercise develops the muscle, the cholesterol is used rather than deposited into artery walls.
To further this hypothesis, we examined the effects of five weeks of RE and dietary cholesterol on the changes in lean mass in rats. Forty rats were divided into six groups. Two had no exercise: cage control (no exercise, standard diet), cage control plus cholesterol (10 times the level of the standard diet). Four others had exercise resembling a squat but the control groups did not have added weights: RE control (exercise with standard diet), RE control plus cholesterol, RE (weights in addition to the exercise), and RE (weights added) plus cholesterol.
After five weeks, the RE control group had the greatest lean mass gains while the RE group (weights added) lean mass actually decreased. While this is puzzling, RE plus cholesterol group the RE control plus cholesterol group both gained lean mass, in similar amounts. These results support the notion that RE utilizes cholesterol in muscle mass gains.
The background information and studies mentioned in this article demonstrate that cholesterol may not be as bad as its reputation, at least not when accompanied by resistance exercise.
- Riechman SE, Andrews RD, Maclean DA and Sheather S. Statins and dietary and serum cholesterol are associated with increased lean mass following resistance training. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 62: 1164-1171, 2007.
- Riechman SE, Lee CW, Chikani G, Chen VC and Lee TV. Cholesterol and skeletal muscle health. World Rev Nutr Diet 100: 71-79, 2009.