Heart-Healthy Habits for Kids

Diet, exercise and proper sleep form the building blocks for wellness
Photo By Jamie Street On Unsplash

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

February is American Heart Month. Now is a great time to think about your child’s cardiovascular health. Eating a well-rounded diet, exercising regularly and getting good sleep are all important habits to form as kids and carry into adulthood. By making heart-healthy choices a part of your family’s routine, everyone is more likely to sustain them.

Diet

A heart-healthy diet includes multiple fruits and vegetables each day, a decent amount of fiber and a limit of fried foods.

To make your child’s diet a bit more heart healthy, forego the sugar-sweetened beverages.

“A lot of kids love juice; it’s nice and sweet, but that bleeds into sodas and energy drinks,” says Sarah Clauss, an advanced imaging cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “Try to encourage water and low-fat milk as much as possible.”

Be creative in making healthy foods more appealing to your kids.

“Serve it in a creative way, like making smiley faces or some unique presentation, to make it more appetizing to them,” Clauss says.

Peter Gaskin, a pediatric cardiologist at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says that when you can make changes in diet gradually, you should always keep moderation in mind.

“There are many ways that you can eat healthy foods and have tasty healthy foods,” he says. “I’m not saying that you can’t have a steak or red meat, but don’t expect to do that three or four times a week. If you do that once a week that’s fine.”

Maintaining a healthy diet is easier to do when everyone in the family does it together.

“Cooking and eating meals as a family, when possible, is one of the ways children can feel supported and empowered in these habits,” says Emmanuelle Favilla, an attending physician with the division of cardiology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Exercise

Regular exercise is also a crucial part of maintaining a healthy heart.

“Your heart is a muscle you need to condition and keep well-tuned,” Gaskin says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids get an hour of exercise five days a week. Although that number may seem daunting, Gaskin says that even 30 minutes of exercise a day would be great for young people.

Clauss also says that the exercise can be broken up throughout the day into smaller increments. She recommends that especially for older kids, who are often more busy, scheduling exercise can help ensure they still do it.

“If they put in their schedule 30 minutes of a walk or treadmill time, it’s more likely to get done than if it is not on the schedule,” she says.

You don’t have to be an athlete or play a sport to make exercise a consistent part of your lifestyle.

“Encourage the kids to turn on some music and dance to a few songs. They can do some situps and pushups. They can jump rope in the house, run up and down stairs or run around and play in the snow,” Gaskin says. “All those things are ways of getting some regular exercise.”

Additionally, try to limit screen time and replace it with exercise that everyone in the family can do together.

“Instilling limitations on screen time as a family — and in turn embracing daily activities that encourage movement, without singling out certain individuals who might be at higher risk due to weight — is important,” Favilla says.

Sleep

Getting good sleep is also necessary for a healthy heart.

“You really need a good night’s sleep to help with your body’s metabolism and to maintain a healthy weight,” Clauss says.

Parents play an important role in making sure that their kids get regular sleep.

“Make sure your kids have some kind of routine — that they’re going to bed at a good hour, getting enough sleep and not having screen time right before bed because that’s going to make it hard to fall asleep,” Clauss says.

Holistic benefits of heart health

Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle at an early age pays off in the long term.

“Our cardiac health as children and adolescents, as evaluated by proxy measures such as weight and blood pressure, reflects our risk of heart disease as adults,” Favilla says. “Thus, it is never too early to promote a heart-healthy lifestyle to our children. (It’s) instilling healthy habits for them to grow with and in turn more easily sustain in adolescence and adulthood.”

Many occurrences of heart disease that adults develop start as kids. But parents can take preventive measures early on.

“It’s very important if you can get your kids screened for cholesterol. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids get screened between 9 and 11,” Clauss says. “Get the screening and take care of it as best as you can early on because that is reversible, but once you get to be older, it’s not.”

One can avoid many health issues by developing heart-healthy habits now.

“If you have a heart-healthy lifestyle in place, you avoid things like obesity, hypertension and having an abnormal glucose profile leading to metabolic syndrome or diabetes,” Gaskin says. “By working on these things from childhood, it’s easier to develop those good habits rather than having to make changes in your lifestyle to fix something that has already happened.”

By making heart-healthy habits a part of your family’s routine, kids will pick them up easier, and adults will also see the benefits in themselves.

“A lot of what I talk about with my families is modeling good behaviors,” Clauss says. “I want parents to eat these foods, too, and the parents to exercise and limit their screen time. I want them to be role models.”

This piece first appeared in the February 2022 issue of MetroKids.

Categories: Health