After only a few minutes of swinging, sliding and running on the playground, 4-year-old Kiley Hickman stops momentarily and puts her hand on her chest, just above her heart.
“I feel it beating faster when I’ve been running a lot,” says Kiley, who lives in Brentwood, Tenn. (pop. 23,445). “I take care of my heart by eating good stuff, like vegetables. I know about my heart because I have a book about it.”
Such youthful heart health awareness is just what the doctor likes to hear—particularly amid alarming U.S. trends in nutrition and exercise that are increasing children’s risk for cardiovascular diseases as they get older. To reverse those trends, medical professionals are encouraging families to help children early on to develop good habits for keeping their hearts healthy for a lifetime—and for parents to be positive role models for nutrition and fitness. “When people have heart attacks or strokes, traditionally this has been thought of as something that happens in adulthood. But the process that leads to the heart attack or stroke actually begins in childhood,” says Dr. Stephen R. Daniels, a pediatric cardiologist and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado. “The better we do in childhood, the better we ultimately will do in preventing those adverse events.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) estimates that 1 million U.S. children between ages 12 and 19 have metabolic syndrome, or MetS, in which they exhibit three or more controllable risk factors for heart disease. Such factors include abnormal blood lipids, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and being overweight or obese.
“Our kids today are almost continuously buffeted by forces that are pushing them in the wrong direction—pushing them to be sedentary and to choose the wrong kinds of foods for their diets,” Daniels says.
Families can take simple and immediate steps to guide children in the right direction. Riska Platt, a registered dietitian in New York City, advises parents to emphasize healthy food choices rather than dietary restrictions. “We’re talking about the long haul,” Platt says. “The goal is getting the family to eat healthy. There are opportunities not just to take things out of the diet, but add things in, like fruits and vegetables.”
Regular exercise also is crucial. School-age children need a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily, according to the AHA and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. However, only 36 states mandate physical education in public elementary schools and only 33 states require it in middle schools.
Parents can do much to step in and fill the gap, including:
- Setting a good example for children, practicing healthy eating habits and getting regular exercise.
- Limiting the family’s computer and television time to less than two hours a day.
- Combining family time and fitness, and getting outdoors when possible. Take a family walk, ride bikes or toss a ball around. Plan family vacations that include vigorous exercise such as hiking and skiing.
- Eating family meals together and involving the kids in meal planning. Read food labels with children to learn about nutritional values, ingredients and calorie counts.
- Not expecting children to clean their plates or using food as a reward. Instead of equating special occasions with food, celebrate with a special outing or activity.
- Staying involved in your child’s day care or school by inquiring about playtime exercise or physical education classes and monitoring cafeteria menus. Also, pack healthy lunches.
- Avoiding fast food in general but, when necessary, choosing healthy menu items such as fruit and salads with low-fat or fat-free dressings. Don’t super-size your order just because you can. Select smaller portions.
- Giving your children household chores that require physical exertion, keeping in mind their levels of strength, coordination and maturity.
“It ought to be clear to everybody that 15 years ago, our kids didn’t decide on their own to start acting in unhealthy ways,” Daniels says. “This is a side effect of other things that are happening in our society. I think it will take a concerted effort on a number of fronts to solve.”
For Kiley’s parents, that means limiting television time, eating right and making physical activities a regular part of family life.
“We talk to Kiley about eating healthy foods that are good for her,” says Laura Hickman, who also has an 11-month-old daughter. “We try to make exercise fun!”