December 12th, 2008
11:25 AM ET

Fighting high cholesterol

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Everyone is afraid of something. Some people are scared of heights. Some people hate small spaces. Some people can't stand snakes. Me? I'm afraid of having my blood drawn. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your perspective), I was able to dodge it for years. But that all changed at my annual physical last January. At the time my only concern was the needle going into my arm but days later when the doctor called with my results, I learned I had a much bigger problem: high cholesterol. Despite being a healthy non-smoking 24-year-old, my cholesterol levels were much too high. I had to lower my numbers or I faced a lifetime of medicine.

For a few months I made an effort to reduce my saturated fat intake. Most mornings I took a quick walk around my neighborhood for 30 minutes. I thought high cholesterol was an easy problem to solve if I just stopped eating cheese and exercised more. But another blood test four months later proved me wrong; not only had my numbers not changed at all, but my doctor wanted to write a prescription immediately. I needed to make some drastic changes but I had no idea where to start.

My parents don’t have high cholesterol and I was at a loss to understand how I did. What foods did I need to avoid? What foods did I need to start eating? What lifestyle changes did I need to make? What, exactly, is cholesterol anyway? Armed with all these questions I started researching and what I learned was pretty sobering. Research has shown that people with high cholesterol in their 20s and 30s are more likely to suffer from heart disease later in life. Women especially need to beware because heart disease kills more women annually than any other affliction. My goal became very clear: Get my heart in shape now and save myself from possible trauma later.

Fixing my cholesterol meant making some major lifestyle changes. I joined a gym and with my new membership came a new mentality. To keep perspective, I remind myself that I'm working out to elevate my heart rate, not to drop ten pounds. I love the instant gratification of leaving an hourlong cardio class knowing that I might not have lost any weight but I literally worked my heart out. On off days I walk a two mile loop around my neighborhood to soak up some sunshine while I exercise. My goal is to move my body and elevate my heart rate once every day, either through a cardio class, a weightlifting class, a yoga class, or hiking or walking outside.

Of course, you cannot keep your cholesterol levels in check without healthy eating. Over the last several months I have restricted my diet to portions of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and omegas 3s. I rarely drink soda or eat fried food (although I randomly indulge in French fries; I can't help it!) and I have learned to cook healthy meals at home. I am not a vegetarian but I have reduced the amount of meat I eat, especially processed deli meats. So far my efforts have made a difference; I dropped my cholesterol level 11 points over the past five months. There is still room for improvement but for now I am confident in the life changes I've made.

Do you know your cholesterol levels? What have you done to lower your cholesterol score?

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.