Starting Young: 5 Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Tips for Kids
It’s never too early for you to start taking care of your heart.
Studies show children who have good heart health practices are at lower your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases later in life. The first step, says Susan Haynes, MD, assistant professor in the division of cardiology at Saint Louis University, is to discuss your family history of any heart-related diseases with your doctor before your child is born.
“Heart health needs to start early. It’s good to be proactive about knowing your family risks, making healthy choices, maintaining a good weight, lowering cholesterol, and controlling blood pressure, which will keep your heart healthy,” says Haynes. “Have a conversation about the possible risk factors with your pediatrician or even obstetrician before the child is born.”
To mark February as heart health month, Haynes is taking this opportunity to suggest building these five heart-healthy lifestyle practices as a child or adolescent to keep your heart healthy forever.
Limit screen time
In this digital age, it’s almost instinctive to hand over that tablet or smartphone to your child when you’re busy working or cooking in the kitchen. Haynes says kids younger than two should not get into the habit of watching TV or playing games on phones.
“Kids between ages two to five should have no more than one to two hours of screen time a day,” she says.
Limiting screen time for kids encourages them to get involved in physical activities. “There’s no way children can watch TV and be physically active at the same time,” says Haynes. “If they are not watching TV, they will find a way to entertain themselves.” Being physically active at a young age means you’re more likely to exercise when you grow older as well.
Say no to smoking
Kids look up to their parents as role models, and often emulate their behavior patterns. Similarly, if a parent is seen smoking, chances are kids would imitate this unhealthy behavior. Studies say children of smokers are twice as likely to smoke.
“If there’s smoking in the household, kids will anticipate that it’s a normal environment and adopt the habits,” she says. “It’s a good idea for parents to quit smoking before the child is born.”
The American Lung Association says almost 3,900 children under 18 try their first cigarette every day, and more than 950 of them will become new, regular daily smokers.
“Not smoking that first cigarette is the best way to keep your heart healthy,” she says.
Watch what you eat
An infant’s diet can make a difference developing heart-healthy habits. Infants should not be given more than four ounces of 100 percent juice a day, and that juice should have no preservatives or sugar. Similarly, when a child is ready to transition from breast milk to cow’s milk, it’s important to note the percentage of fat in the milk that would be suitable for the child. That decision can be made based on the family risk factors and the child’s usual diet.
Like adults, kids are generally encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fiber to maintain a healthy diet. It’s important to avoid sweetened drinks and other processed food from an early age.
“Parents play an important role in what their kids eat. They have to portray an ideal meal for the kids to develop the habit of choosing a healthy diet,” Haynes says. “While eating at a fast food restaurant, think about choosing apple slices instead of fries with the happy meal, or yogurt instead of a milkshake.”
What’s your BMI?
Your child’s body mass index (BMI)—calculated from a person’s weight and height—tells you if your child is obese or overweight.
“A child may look skinny to the parent, but the actual weight may or may not be in the normal range,” Haynes says. “It’s a good idea to have that number checked out.”
Check your cholesterol
Recent guidelines from American Academy of Pediatrics recommends cholesterol screening for all children between ages of 9 – 11, and sooner if your child is obese or has a concerning family history.
“If your child is obese and in that age bracket, he or she should regularly be screened for cholesterol levels,” Haynes says. “Sometimes having a specific number helps families be more aware of health problems and thus be more motivated to take action to improve habits.”