Background: Guidelines established by the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) promote exercise and weight loss for the treatment of abnormal lipoprotein levels. Little is known, however, about the effects of exercise or the NCEP diet, which is moderately low in fat and cholesterol, in persons with lipoprotein levels that place them at high risk for coronary heart disease.
Methods: We studied plasma lipoprotein levels in 180 postmenopausal women, 45 through 64 years of age, and 197 men, 30 through 64 years of age, who had low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels (< or =59 mg per deciliter in women and < or =44 mg per deciliter in men) and moderately elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (>125 mg per deciliter but <210 mg per deciliter in women and >125 mg per deciliter but <190 mg per deciliter in men). The subjects were randomly assigned to aerobic exercise, the NCEP Step 2 diet, or diet plus exercise, or to a control group, which received no intervention.
Results: Dietary intake of fat and cholesterol decreased during the one-year study (P<0.001), as did body weight, in women and men in either the diet group or the diet-plus-exercise group, as compared with the controls (P<0.001) and the exercise group (P<0.05), in which dietary intake and body weight were unchanged. Changes in HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol did not differ significantly among the treatment groups, for subjects of either sex. The serum level of LDL cholesterol was significantly reduced among women (a decrease of 14.5+/-22.2 mg per deciliter) and men (a decrease of 20.0+/-17.3 mg per deciliter) in the diet-plus-exercise group, as compared with the control group (women had a decrease of 2.5+/-16.6 mg per deciliter, P<0.05; men had a decrease of 4.6+/-21.1 mg per deciliter, P<0.001). The reduction in LDL cholesterol in men in the diet-plus-exercise group was also significant as compared with that among the men in the exercise group (3.6+/-18.8 mg per deciliter, P<0.001). In contrast, changes in LDL cholesterol levels were not significant among the women (a decrease of 7.3+/-18.9 mg per deciliter) or the men (10.8+/-18.8 mg per deciliter) in the diet group, as compared with the controls.
Conclusions: The NCEP Step 2 diet failed to lower LDL cholesterol levels in men or women with high-risk lipoprotein levels who did not engage in aerobic exercise. This finding highlights the importance of physical activity in the treatment of elevated LDL cholesterol levels.