Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States but is preventable. Living a heart-healthy lifestyle means regular exercise and a healthy diet. It can make all the difference in keeping your heart healthy.
We sat down with Megan McGreevy, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at UPMC Hamot, to talk about heart-healthy habits. Read on to learn why getting an early start on heart-healthy habits is vital for the whole family.
Q: Why is starting heart-healthy habits at a young age vital?
A: Kids learn their habits, diets, and favorite meals when they’re young. They learn from watching you, their caretakers, and other loved ones. Your actions can help teach your kids to enjoy exercising and eating healthy foods.
Smart choices improve their long-term health and prevent serious illness later.
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Plaque starts to build up inside blood vessels in childhood. This is the beginning stage of atherosclerotic disease. This buildup continues throughout a lifetime.
It takes many years for built-up plaque to cause symptoms of atherosclerotic disease. Symptoms include heart attack or stroke. When you’re young, preventing plaque can delay or even prevent these health issues.
Q: What risk factors of heart disease can parents help prevent in their kids?
A: Parents are often more motivated to help their kids than themselves. Changing lifestyles as a family works to help mitigate a lot of these risk factors for everyone. These include:
Family history is difficult to reduce since we can’t change our genetics. However, it’s vital to discuss this with your child’s doctor. Let them know if anyone in your family has had heart disease.
This can include a history of:
- Chest pain.
- Heart attack.
- Coronary artery disease.
Knowing your child’s risk factors will help your child’s doctor make the best plan for them.
The number of overweight or obese kids in the United States has been growing over the past 30 years. Your child’s doctor will calculate their body mass index (BMI). They’ll look this number up on a growth or BMI chart to see how they compare to other kids.
Studies show that kids who are overweight or obese have a higher likelihood of being overweight or obese as adults. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of heart disease.
Physical activity patterns created in childhood carry forward into adulthood. We suggest finding activities that your kids enjoy doing at a young age. Kids or teens who do daily physical activity have better heart health indicators.
These indicators include:
- Lower blood pressure.
- Lower BMI.
- Lower bad (LDL) cholesterol.
- Lower triglycerides.
They also tend to make better food choices and are less likely to smoke.
Smoking and other tobacco use
Tobacco use raises your risk for heart disease significantly. Parents who use tobacco products model this behavior to their kids and teens. This makes them more likely to smoke than kids who grew up in a smoke-free home.
Secondhand smoke exposure can also hurt your child.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like product of your liver. It is vital for good health. But too much “bad cholesterol” (LDL) is a risk factor for heart disease.
Getting physical exercise and eating healthy foods can help lower bad cholesterol. Too much cholesterol increases the risk of plaque buildup.
All kids have their lipid levels or a cholesterol panel done to check these indicators. This is typically done between nine and 11 years old and again between 17 and 21 years of age.
Q: How much activity do you suggest for kids and adults?
A: We suggest 150 minutes a week of moderate to intense aerobic activity for adults. We also suggest some strength training about two days a week.
For kids, we suggest an hour of activity each day. Being outside and playing or taking part in a sport is an easy way to keep kids active. Involving your teens in an after-school activity or organized sport gives them regular exercise.
We suggest limiting media time to no more than two hours a day. Find physical activities that the whole family enjoys. Ideas include:
- Bike riding.
- Ice skating.
- Playing tag.
- Going for walks.
- Playing sports.
Doing activities that everyone enjoys is the best way to get the family to exercise together.
Q: What are some heart-healthy foods for the family?
A: We know that our food choices play a big part in many diseases. It plays a huge role in atherosclerotic disease.
For infants, breastfeeding has shown long-term heart benefits. These include lower cholesterol levels, lower BMI, and a decreased risk for type 2 diabetes.
After two years of age, kids should eat healthy foods similar to what you’d eat. Limit bad fats and sugar, be high in fiber and nutrients, and incorporate plenty of fruits and vegetables.
We develop our tastes and our desires for foods and beverages very young. Teaching your kids at a young age to drink water all day will carry over as they grow.
Some resources that we suggest for heart-healthy recipes include:
- The American Heart Association.
- The Dash Dietary Pattern.
- MyPlate information for kids.
- Child-1 Diet.
It’s also crucial to teach your kids how to read package labels. Help them understand what is healthy. Take them grocery shopping and tell them how you make heart-healthy food choices.
The American Heart Association’s Heart-Check digital grocery list tool simplifies shopping for heart-healthy foods.
Q: What are some healthy lunch ideas for kids?
A: Parents want something quick and easy when packing kids’ lunches. We encourage parents to make a few healthy choices for their kids. These include:
- Choose whole-grain bread instead of white bread.
- Adding chopped-up vegetables and fruit to yogurt.
- Limiting pre-packaged chips or desserts.
Talk to their doctor if you have questions about your child’s heart health. They can give you tips on how to build heart-healthy activities into your kid’s routine. They will help form a plan to keep your child’s heart healthy and on track.
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.