The habits your children learn now could affect their heart health later in life.
It’s never too late to adopt healthy habits to help protect your heart—and it’s never too early, either.
“The risk factors [for heart disease] start to develop during childhood years,” says Geoffrey Rosenthal, MD, PhD, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Fortunately, you can help kids reduce some of those risks by helping them develop healthy heart habits while they’re young.
Heart disease risk factors that can affect kids
Some conditions that increase heart disease risk can actually begin in childhood. Among them:
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), some children already have unhealthy cholesterol levels, which can worsen as they grow older. Unhealthy cholesterol contributes to atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty plaque in arteries, and raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. Plaque buildup can start during childhood, according to the AHA.
- High blood pressure. “High blood pressure during childhood is increasingly an issue and is a recognized risk factor for cardiovascular disease in adult years,” Dr. Rosenthal says. Like unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure can contribute to the buildup of plaque on artery walls.
- Obesity. Obesity is also a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. About 1 in 3 children and teens in the U.S. is overweight or obese, according to the AHA.
What parents can do
There are a variety of things parents can do to help kids establish good heart health early in life.
To start with, be a good role model. Not only will your kids follow your lead, your heart will benefit as well.
“Many of the habits children should develop are also habits that their parents should develop,” Dr. Rosenthal says. For example:
- Play every day.
Exercise can strengthen the heart and help with weight management, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, according to the AAP. “Exercise vigorously and regularly,” Dr. Rosenthal says. Kids should get vigorous exercise for at least 20 minutes three times a week, if not more, he says.
Dr. Rosenthal recommends “any form of activity that is vigorous enough for a child to sweat and be out of breath,” such as bike riding, soccer or basketball—or even an indoor obstacle course, if playing outside isn’t an option.
Encourage exercise by helping kids find an activity that they really enjoy and by being active together as a family.
- Eat heart-smart foods.
Like exercising, eating well can help kids maintain a healthy weight and control cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
“Healthy food choices for children are the same as healthy food choices for adults,” Dr. Rosenthal says.
Very young children usually don’t need to watch their intake of fat. But, according to the AAP, by age 5, kids’ eating habits should mirror yours: plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; low-fat dairy products; and smaller portions of healthy proteins like beans, fish, skinless chicken and lean red meat.
One way to help kids eat well is to eat together as a family regularly. It’s good bonding time—and it helps kids learn to make healthy food choices.
- Limit screen time.
Spending too much time in front of television and computer screens can lead to an inactive lifestyle, excessive snacking and obesity, according to the AHA.
- Avoid tobacco.
“Tobacco smoking is a well-established risk factor for cardiovascular disease in adults,” Dr. Rosenthal says. Like other unhealthy habits, it can start during childhood. Encourage kids to stay away from cigarettes—and if you smoke, kick the habit for your own heart’s sake.
- Find ways to have fun.
“Kids should have fun,” Dr. Rosenthal says. “Even when it comes to healthy diet and exercise, don’t make it stressful—make it fun.”
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