Over time, cholesterol left unchecked can build up in arteries. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Have you been told you have high cholesterol? Wondering how to get your numbers down?

Thomas Boyden, MD, a Spectrum Health preventive cardiologist, would like you to know that diet and exercise are two of the most important components of cholesterol management.

They should be the go-to tools in your arsenal to keep your cardiovascular system in tiptop shape.

“I am 100% for patients doing everything they can for themselves and ultimately taking responsibility for their own health,” Dr. Boyden said. “If patients were more focused on diet and routine aerobic activity, many would realize they have the opportunity to improve their overall health and reduce their chance of heart disease and stroke, potentially without the need for medications.”

Dr. Boyden said some people have inherent genetic risks or other illnesses and are at higher risk than others. These patients oftentimes cannot fix their cholesterol numbers with diet and exercise alone, so he advocates for medication in these cases.

“Heart disease and vascular disease are never caused by one thing,” Dr. Boyden said. “It’s a combination of everything. The most important thing is what you do at home.”

His overall recommendations: quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight, keep your cholesterol levels under control, eat a plant-based or Mediterranean diet, and exercise regularly.

It doesn’t take much—a 30-minute vigorous walk every day makes a big difference.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in our country and also the most preventable,” Dr. Boyden said.

If you have high cholesterol, here’s what you need to know:

Worst foods

Avoid fatty foods, but know that not all fat is bad fat. The worst are trans fats and saturated fats, which are mostly found in processed foods and fatty meats. Eating less of each of these will benefit a patient’s cholesterol levels. Beef and red meats should be consumed in moderation.

Best foods

Try to eat a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and non-animal based proteins. Consider a plant-based diet rich in whole foods.

Soy products, beans and fish (which has a better fat composition than other animal products) are all great to incorporate into your diet. If you can’t go vegetarian, introducing fish—instead of meat—to your diet a couple times per week can make a noticeable difference.

Activity

The more aerobic activity you can work into your routine, the better.

Moderate aerobic activity is less likely to affect weight loss, but it can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and helps control blood sugar. Exercise improves mental capacity, makes bones strong and improves mood.

Any exercise is helpful, so don’t feel that you need to train like an athlete. Just 20 to 30 minutes per day of moderate activity has proven benefits. The key is to get your pulse and breathing elevated, but there is no need to push yourself to extremes.

Family history

It is important to know family history and whether you have a higher disposition to illnesses and risk factors.

Are you overweight? Do you have diabetes or high blood pressure? And do any of these conditions run in your family?

Talk to your doctor about how your genetics could affect your health now and in the future.

Personalized plan

If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes, it’s important to consult with your medical team to create a personalized treatment plan that works for you.

Your doctor will conduct an individualized risk assessment and help you determine what might work best for you. And a dietitian will help you craft a strong strategy for success.