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Cholesterol Medications May Defeat Exercise Programs

Not every medical problem is cured by a pill.
Not every medical problem is cured by a pill.

When I first wrote about cholesterol medications (statins) in 2007, I had serious concerns about how they were being marketed. Clinical research showed there were extremely small benefits from taking a daily prescription. The negative side effects were glossed over and the huge benefits of proper diet and exercise were being ignored.

Over the years, it's gotten even worse.

If you take the drug Vytorin you're told it'll help lower your cholesterol. That's true. What the drug company doesn't mention is that it has "never been shown to reduce heart attacks or deaths."

You read that right. According to John Abramson, clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, "You can lower cholesterol levels with a drug, yet provide no health benefits whatsoever, and dying with a corrected cholesterol level is not a successful outcome in my book."

The top artery is healthy. The middle and bottom arteries show plaque formation, rupturing, clotting and blood flow interruption.
The top artery is healthy. The middle and bottom arteries show plaque formation, rupturing, clotting and blood flow interruption.

It gets worse. More than a dozen studies now show that an otherwise healthy person with no symptoms or history of heart disease will NOT benefit from taking statins. NO benefit. Zero, zip, nada.

Clinical research also shows that increasing "good" cholesterol may be overrated. A study published in 2012 showed that people with naturally higher HDL or "good" cholesterol didn't have any extra protection from heart attacks than people with regular levels of HDL.

Researchers believe that healthy activities like exercise, losing weight and avoiding smoking (which all increase HDL) also protect against heart attacks. The HDL wasn't actually providing any protection; it was simply a sign that other healthy things were taking place that would lead to lower heart attacks. Simply being born with higher HDL won't help; you have to live a healthier life to get the benefit.

The bad news keeps on coming. Now researchers have found that statin users are 9% more likely to develop diabetes than non-statin users.

Then in April (2013), the news got even worse. In an important study carried out by the Division of Cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, researchers found out that statins dramatically REDUCE the effectiveness of a cardio workout.

A group of volunteers, who had not exercised the previous year, went in and walked or jogged on a treadmill for 45 minutes, five times a week at 65 to 70 percent of their aerobic maximum. Everyone was asked not to change his or her diet over the 3-month program.

Half the volunteers started taking a 40-milligram dose of simvastatin (sold under the brand name Zocor), while the other half did not.

At the end of the 12-week program, the exercise group taking the statins gained barely a single percent (on average) in their fitness. The group not on statins improved by more than 10 percentage points. Some of the volunteers who exercised on statins had LESS aerobic capacity at the end of the study than they started with.

Here's why it's such a problem. Over the years researchers have found that if you improve your aerobic fitness through exercise, even by a small percentage, you can reduce your chances of dying prematurely by as much as 50 percent. This study seems to show if you're taking statins, the drug may be working to severely reduce the effectiveness of exercise.

Muscle biopsies gave researchers a clue at what was happening. The people taking statins had a 4.5 percent DECREASE in an important enzyme that's associated with the health of the energy-producing part of a cell. People who weren't taking statins saw those enzyme levels INCREASE by 13 percent. Without that critical enzyme, researchers believe it was tougher for cells to thrive.

High cholesterol is a serious medical condition. We are not advocating you start or stop any medication based on these clinical trial results. What we want is for you to have a serious talk with your doctor to see if statins are something you really need, or if you may benefit more by simply eating healthier food and getting a little exercise.

UPDATE: 9/29/2020

On September 21, 2020, The New York Times released an article by Jane E. Brody with the subhead, "There is accumulating evidence that the benefits of statins far outweigh possible risks,...”

I want to point out to our readers, the clinical evidence for that statement is simply not true. My job and that of the team of trainers and researchers that work with me is simple. Help our clients get in the best possible shape and live as illness and injury-free as possible.

One of the ways we do that is by publishing information that is based on clinical trials and a preponderance of evidence from a broad range of reliable studies. For nearly a decade we've been urging caution for anyone considering taking a statin for their stated purpose of lowering cholesterol.

We've learned that while statins can help lower cholesterol, they have not been able to prove they help you live longer if you have no symptoms or history of heart disease. We've also discovered statin users are 9% more likely to develop diabetes than non-statin users. As of 2013, we also found out that statins dramatically reduce the effectiveness of a cardio workout. Those problems don't even consider the possible harmful interactions statins create when taken with other medications or supplements.

Supposedly all that's about to change because of a study published on May 26, 2020. Researchers found that, “Among US veterans 75 years and older and free of ASCVD at baseline, new statin use was significantly associated with a lower risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality.” In fact, the study claimed that the initiation of statin use resulted in 25% fewer deaths overall and 20% fewer cardiovascular deaths during a nearly 7-year follow-up.

Here's where the problem lies. That study did not give statins to half the people and a placebo to the other half. The patients were simply divided into two groups. But the mere act of being prescribed a statin can have life-changing effects. It's not uncommon for people who are told they must start taking statins for cholesterol, often begin engaging in healthier behaviors. There is no evidence to show if it was the drug or them being made aware their cholesterol was a problem.

It's especially worrisome when we DO know that statins dramatically reduce the effectiveness of cardio exercise and significantly increase the risk of developing diabetes.

There's also the claim that statins may be able to reduce deaths from ovarian cancer. Once again, the information is based on looking at records of people and dividing them into groups of statin takes and non-statin takers.

Dr. Antoni Ribas, president of the American Association for Cancer Research, said that if the finding is confirmed in a randomized clinical trial, “this would be a great outcome.” Unfortunately we do not have that clinical trial.

It's very troubling that the “gold standard” of clinical trials, which involve comparing a placebo to the actual medication, show so much potential for harm and so little benefit from taking statins. We love the idea of a miracle medication! But we have not seen the evidence statins are that miracle. We will keep an eye on the research and hope for the best.

You can download the JAMA study here: Association of Statin Use With All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality in US Veterans 75 Years and Older

To learn more about cholesterol, click here.

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Updated 9/29/2020