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Helping children develop heart healthy habits


One of the best ways to put a dent in the staggering statistics that surround heart disease is to increase the focus on prevention. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, killing more than 600,000 Americans each year. Developing heart healthy habits at a young age is key to changing the tide when it comes to this life-and-death issue. Most kids are born with a healthy heart. While genetics play a factor for those affected by heart disease, the majority of cases are related to an individual’s long-term diet and exercise habits, beginning at a young age.

“Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States putting children and adolescents at risk for poor health, including heart health,” said Brian McGinn, MD, pediatrician, Hannibal Clinic. Dr. McGinn is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics.

The latest Centers for Disease Control numbers show that obesity prevalence was 13.9% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 18.4% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 20.6% among 12- to 19-year-olds.

“For most children, the keys to reducing the risk of obesity are a healthy diet and plenty of exercise,” Dr. McGinn.  “Parents and guardians set those examples.”

Heart healthy tips

  • The American Heart Association recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. This activity doesn’t have to be 60 minutes in a row; it could be broken up into segments that fit the family’s schedule. Plan times for everyone to get moving together. Take walks, ride bikes, go swimming, garden or just play hide-and-seek outside. Everyone will benefit from the exercise and the time together.

  • Limit TV, video game and computer time. These habits lead to a sedentary lifestyle and excessive snacking, which increase risks for obesity and cardiovascular disease. Limit screen time to 2 hours per day.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, and dairy. “Eat the rainbow” of colorful foods on your plate at mealtime.

  • Include fiber found in grains, legumes, beans, and certain fruits and vegetables. Its benefits include not only keeping the digestive tract healthy, but also decreasing cardiovascular risk, slowing the progression of cardiovascular disease and reducing LDL, the lousy cholesterol.

  • Swap junk with real, whole foods. Choose foods that are of good quality, and close to its original form as possible. Try beef skewers instead of frankfurters; light, fresh white fish instead of fish fingers; chicken tenderloins over chicken nuggets; and whole grains.

  • Reduce added sugar intake. Our kids have no need for drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. Instead, enjoy water flavored with real fruit and/or vegetables. Having some sugar on occasion is certainly no crime, but focus should be on a diet packed with real, whole foods.

  • Make dinnertime a family time. When everyone sits down together to eat, there’s less chance of children eating the wrong foods or snacking too much. Get your kids involved in cooking and planning meals. Everyone develops good eating habits together and the quality time with the family will be an added bonus.

Show them the way to a healthy heart

“Adults are a child’s role model. Your habits affect your children’s habits. Starting these behaviors and activities early can make them lifelong habits,” said Irving Schwartz, MD, cardiologist, Blessing Physician Services.

“You don’t have to be perfect all the time, but if kids see you trying to eat right and getting physically active, they’ll take notice of your efforts. You’ll send a message that good health is important to your family,” Dr. Schwartz concluded.

Some of the information in this story was provided by the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control.