Photo: Kids Running on the Beach

by Tandis Bishop

Helping your children become heart-healthy from a very young age helps reduce their risk for heart disease later in life and teaches them to make heart-healthy choices throughout life. "It's important for children to adopt healthy heart habits early," said Dr. Thomas Klitzner, professor of pediatric cardiology at Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA.1

"The path to heart disease begins in childhood. Obesity and high blood pressure are becoming more prevalent in children and young adults. By introducing the concepts of regular exercise, good nutrition and avoiding smoking, children can make heart-healthy habits part of their lifestyle for the rest of their lives." Physical activity is an essential part of a healthy heart.

"Keeping your children active may decrease the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease," says Dr. Anna O'Riordan, a pediatric cardiologist at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. "It can build strong muscles and bones as well as reduce body fat."

Healthy eating habits are equally important in reducing the risk for heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it's estimated that 10 percent of two-to-five year olds and more than 15 percent of children between the ages of six and 19 are overweight.2 "In addition to having health problems during their youth, these children have been found to have the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, which can affect them as they get older," Dr. O'Riordan says.

"Encouraging children to eat a well-balanced meal will have positive long term effects." Heart-healthy habits for children are the same for adults, so the most practical and impactful way to teach your children at an early age is by setting a good example yourself. This way the whole family benefits. Here are some heart-healthy tips to practice with your kids:

  1. Limit TV to no more than two hours a day. (This includes movies, video games, and non-schoolwork-related computer activities.) Give them alternative ideas to help them move around, such as enrolling them in after-school physical activities.
  2. Make sure your children are getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Find out what kind of sports and activities your children like and encourage the physical activities that your child enjoys. Exercising with your child is also great as it offers benefits for the both of you. The American Heart Association has some great ideas on ways to increase your child’s physical activity.
  3. Eat a plant-based diet consisting of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. A balanced plant-based diet tends to be low in fat and cholesterol and high in fiber, all of which is important in reducing the risk for heart disease. Low-fat dairy is good if well-tolerated and consumed in moderation.
  4. Avoid fast food, fried food, candy and sodas. High in fat, cholesterol, and sugar… and lacking fiber, these foods are some of the main culprits in a heart-damaging diet. Make these your “special occasion” foods instead.
  5. Don’t smoke cigarettes. Children who smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke have an increased risk of heart disease when they get older. If you smoke, make it a goal to quit smoking for both your health and the health of your children. If your child currently smokes, encourage him or her to quit, as it will have immediate heart benefits.