Cholesterol, blood pressure and other heart health issues used to be primarily the concerns of the middle aged. But most American kids need to improve their heart health for the sake of their future.
"There has been more and more evidence that the cardiovascular problems we see in adults--heart disease, stroke, heart attack--and related issues such as obesity and diabetes don't develop overnight. Instead, they may have their roots in childhood and poor health habits that start there, and progress over time," says Sandra Mathur, DO, a board-certified pediatrician at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group in Diamond Bar. "So it makes sense to focus on our children when discussing healthy patterns that can last a lifetime and cut the risk of heart problems down the road."
That conversation is especially crucial given the state of children's health in America. "Too many kids don't meet the standards for diet, exercise and other health habits. There has been an increase in so many problem areas--obesity, prevalence of type 2 diabetes, and higher blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels," Dr. Mathur says. "The AHA offers strategies kids and their parents can use to adopt heart-smart habits, modeled on similar guidelines developed for adults. They include:
1. Maintain a healthy weight.
About one in three American children are overweight or obese, the heart association says. "Of course, diet and exercise are key components to maintaining a healthy weight, and some tips are offered below," Dr. Mathur says. "But it's important that anything kids are asked to do should be done by parents and other siblings, too. Children will feel supported and it's a way for parents to model healthy habits."
2. Eat a balanced diet.
Less than 1 percent of children ages 2 to 19 eat what's considered a healthy diet, according to the AHA.
Dr. Mathur suggests implementing the following changes. "Don't try and do it all at once, but take one step at a time; once the healthy habit is established, add on another one."
- Don't serve sugary drinks such as sodas or fruit juice.
- Don't overfeed children and insist that they clear their plates. Let children eat when they are hungry, and offer them healthy foods.
- Serve foods low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars. Build meals around whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats and produce.
- When it comes to those fruits and veggies, try to offer a serving of one of them at every meal and snack time. Generally, a serving size is a half-cup for children 4 years and older.
3. Exercise for one hour minimum per day.
Only half of boys ages 6 to 11, and one-third of girls, reach that exercise goal; those figures are estimated to be even less for teens.
"If a child is old enough, they should be encouraged to pick up a sport,” Dr. Mathur says. "It doesn't have to be competitive; recreational leagues offer more than enough activity time. And it doesn't have to be a team sport, as there are plenty of opportunities for running, swimming, skateboarding and other sports. If a child doesn't like organized sports, make sure they get plenty of play time outdoors. That means cutting back on time spent watching TV or playing video games--screen time shouldn't make up more than two hours each day."
4. Don't smoke.
An estimated 2,500 kids try their first cigarette each day in America, and for many it translates into a lifelong habit--90 percent of adult smokers picked it up when they were young, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Parents need to educate their kids on the health dangers of smoking, but they also need to teach their kids how to respond if a peer offers them a cigarette," Dr. Mathur says. "Kids can deflect the offer with a joke or by saying it's not worth the hassle if a parent catches them, or they can simply walk away. Kids should also be aware that chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes also have health risks."
5. Keep blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels at optimum levels.
"It's good to have these baseline markers for heart health," Dr. Mathur says. When it comes to cholesterol, kids should be tested initially when they are 9 to 11 years old; if their reading is 130 or higher, their cholesterol is considered high and their daily diet and exercise regimen should be changed.
"Blood pressure checks will probably be done during well-child visits, and the optimum levels depend on the child's age, height and gender," Dr. Mathur says. "Blood sugar checks may be done at the doctor's discretion, or if a child is believed to be at risk for diabetes. A reading of 200 or above indicates a child may have diabetes."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.