Heart health starts in childhood to avoid cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. Kids today have developed so many bad health habits that they are facing heart attacks in their 30s. Many experts predict they will be the first generation to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Parents like you have a significant influence over your kid’s habits. By modeling the behaviors as well as instilling positive habits, you can make a huge difference in your child’s health.
It’s all about establishing good habits and breaking the bad ones early on. Our habits from childhood continue into our adult lives and can have a significant impact on our overall health more so than just our genetics. So let’s not wait, here are some tips to improve heart health as well as avoid other chronic diseases.
1. Move it. Daily exercise is a must. For kids at least an hour a day of heart-pumping movement. Childhood is a great time to try out different activities and sports, whether team or solo to find a good fit. For kids, rotating activities and sports is preferable to avoid overuse injuries in growing bones, joints ligaments, and muscles. The idea is those kids that are active in childhood will continue to seek out physical fitness as adults. I was into dance and gymnastics as a child, but now bicycling and pilates are more my speed. It doesn’t matter what activity you do, as long as you get your muscles fired up, strengthening, improving balance and get your heart rate up -to help combat chronic diseases like osteoporosis, heart disease and improve mood. Remember family activities like walking the dog, raking leaves, and free play at the playground all count too!
2. More plants. Eating a diet that is predominately plant-based (fruits, veggies, whole grains) and less emphasis on protein from meat is a great way to keep healthy. It provides loads of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants as well as lots of fiber to keep you full and regulate your sugar levels. Parents are always concerned about kids getting enough protein, but in general, kids get more than even necessary on a daily basis whether it be meat, eggs, dairy, poultry, fish. Opt for smaller portions and instead, pile on the fruits and veggies. Make those side dishes the main event! Also, limit cured, smoked and fried foods and opt for kids getting used to steamed, baked and sautéed foods.
3. Ditch desserts. A common error with kids is to start a habit that a meal ends with dessert. Forget the sweets after dinner; you should end feeling adequate and full from the food on your plate. If hungry a few hours later, first drink a glass of water or even milk. If need be, give a snack that’s healthy and avoid the highly processed, sugar-laden snacks. Save those for more special occasions rather than daily treats. Another tip is portion control. I have an ice cream loving family so trade off between frozen fruit treats and ice cream. Also, portion control is key to feeling satisfied and avoiding binge eating from deprivation. Serve a small single cupful of ice cream rather than ordering a large 2 to 3 scoops. Your kids will still be happy.
4. Chat with your child. Though it may seem like your kid tunes you out or doesn’t want to hear what you have to say, start early and keep talking about dangers and risky behaviors of smoking. Kids whose parents talk about drugs and alcohol are 42 percent less likely to use substances than those whose parents don’t. And I know, as a pediatrician, it’s not enough to ask about cigarette use; you must discuss e-cigarettes which now are all the rage and extremely addictive. The most common brand is JUUL which comes in enticing fruity flavors, and each one pod contains as much nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes! I am seeing teens who are using and can’t stop; they quickly become jittery, develop headaches, anxiety, nervousness, diarrhea, and difficulty concentrating. The other chemical carcinogens, as well as nicotine, are dangerous to the developing brain long term. And it appears those kids that start with e-cigarette use “just for fun” end up using regular tobacco cigarettes at a much higher rate than kids who do not vape. Let your kids learn the facts from you and help them stay healthy now and avoid heart disease and lung cancer later on.
5. Preventive care visits. Show your kids you care about their health and your own. Make sure to schedule family annual physical exams with your physicians and stay up to date on immunizations, routine lab tests, and physical examinations to ensure your health is on track. Prevention is the key to avoiding chronic disease. It’s also a great time to get specific advice from your doctor if you have a concern or there is a family history of a certain disease. Partnering with your family doctor or pediatrician, asking questions and being a role model will help your kids stay connected to the health system as they become young adults and in charge of their health. Remember starting them down the right path with good health habits can make all the difference now and into their future.
Jennifer Trachtenberg is a pediatrician and can be reached at Ask Dr. Jen.
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