Q. My “good” cholesterol is low. How can I raise it without medication?

A. “Good” HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol protects the heart by sweeping up cholesterol and clearing it from the arteries. So a low HDL level increases your risk of heart disease.

Anything under 40 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), is considered low. While there are a few drugs that raise HDL, there's little evidence that taking them reduce the risk of heart attack.  

The good news is that a number of lifestyle changes that are clearly good for your heart and overall health can also raise your HDL. Here's what can help:

• Exercise: Regular aerobic exercise may boost HDL levels by about 11 percent, some research suggests. Aim for 30 minutes five times a week. (For indoor workouts, see our Ratings and reviews of the best treadmills, ellipticals, and alternative motion exercise machines.

• Lose weight. If you’re overweight, losing a few pounds can help; for every 6 pounds you drop, you may increase your HDL level by 1 mg/dL. (See how to lose weight without diet pills.)

Choose healthier fats. Eating more monounsaturated fats (in avocados, nuts, and olive and canola oil) was found in one study to increase HDLs by 12.5 percent. Fish rich in omega-3 oil can boost HDLs, too. Also helpful is eating two to three servings per week of fatty, low-mercury fish like wild or canned salmon, sardines, pollock, or tilapia.

• Don't smoke. If you smoke, ask your doctor for help quitting. Stopping isn't easy, but you can increase your odds of success by trying more than one strategy at a time.

• Watch your meds. Talk with your doctor if you take a beta-blocker or benzodiazepine, because that can reduce HDL levels.

See our advice on how to lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol including our Best Buy Drugs advice on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.