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Exercise and Nutrition for Kids’ Heart Health

For the past month or so, you haven’t been able to walk into a drugstore without seeing red, candy, and hearts, hearts, hearts, everywhere. And while I’m not sure when Valentine’s Day became Valentine’s Month, it IS an important month for hearts in general. Why? Because February is, in fact, American Heart Month!

But what does that mean? More fundraising requests popping up in your inbox? A day where we all wear red to work? Sure! But really, it’s a great excuse to educate yourself (and your family) on developing heart-healthy habits. While we obsess over our kids allergies, nutrition, and sniffles, we rarely think about their little tickers. The truth is that unless your child was born with a congenital heart defect, we tend to put heart health in a box, thinking of it as a decidedly “grown-up problem.”

But kids’ heart health as we know, healthy lifestyles start with healthy habits, and that starts today.

According to the CDC, about 200,000 heart disease deaths could each year could have been prevented, and there’s no time like the present to start caring about exercise and nutrition.

Keep reading for tips to get kids off on the right foot and set the tone for a heart-healthy life.

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Heart-Healthy and Kid-Friendly Foods

What makes a food heart-healthy? It could be loaded with heart-helping vitamins and minerals, or it could be low in fats, cholesterol, and sodium. In a nutshell, a heart-healthy diet is simply one that keeps three things in balance: your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.

To keep things in balance, it’s important to know which foods to moderate, and which food to add to your diet.

Foods to Moderate:

  • Saturated Fats: We love to hate them, but not as much as we love to eat them. Butter, red meats, fried foods and full-fat dairy products can be delicious, but the American Heart Association recommends no more than 7 percent of calories should come from these artery cloggers. For a child who needs 1,400 calories, that’s only 98!  
  • Trans Fats – Why do we keep using trans fats? Simply put, they improve the texture of processed foods while extending their shelf life. Unfortunately, they’re one of the worst things for your heart. If you’re buying processed foods and they’re not labeled “trans fat free” be sure to check the label and steer of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Cholesterol – Both dietary cholesterol and saturated fat can increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Meats and dairy are the top contenders, with red meat being the guiltiest party.
  • High Sodium Foods –  High-sodium foods like salty snacks, restaurant and processed foods can aggravate blood pressure.

Foods to Add:

  • Fruits & Veggies – Full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but low in fat and calories, you really can’t get enough! If your family is full of picky eaters, try these tips to get kids to eat their vegetables.
  • Soluble Fiber – This type of fiber (most commonly found in oats, beans, and carrots)  will help keep you full while lowering bad cholesterol.
  • Omega-3 Fats Most Americans aren’t getting their fill, so it may take extra creativity to get your kids in the habit. If sardines and salmon aren’t in the cards for them, try tossing flax seeds into cereal or yogurt, add walnuts to their favorite dessert, or dress up a boring tuna sandwich by rolling it into a wrap with Granny Smith apples and cheddar cheese.
kids heart health boy on bicycle

Top Exercises for Kids’ Heart Health

We know that the Department of Health and Human Services recommends a full hour of physical activity for kids each day. (That sounds like a lot, but fortunately you have gym class and recess to shoulder some of the load.)

That said, certain activities are specifically good at strengthening the cardiovascular system. Johns Hopkins has identified three kinds:

  • Aerobic Exercise: When you think of “cardio” you’re thinking of aerobic exercise, the most effective way to get your heart pumping. Aerobic exercises like walking, running, biking are shown to improve circulation, in turn lowering blood pressure and your heart rate. Fortunately these are often the most fun for the little ones! Rather than having the kiddos run laps, work in exciting activities like tag, jump rope, family bike rides, and swimming in the warmer months.
  • Strength Training: While not as effective as aerobic exercise, resistance workouts are great at lowering body fat if your doctor has determined that your child is above a healthy weight. While it’s not always advisable for a child, bodyweight exercises like push-ups are more common and easy to turn into a fun game.
  • Flexibility: Now stretching won’t do anything for your ticker per se, but it is essential to preventing joint pain, cramps and injuries. Always be sure to stretch before and after other exercise!

As always, consult your doctor before starting an exercise routine, and be sure to talk to your child about exercising for a healthy body rather than a certain appearance.   

At the end of the day, it’s all about moderation. Strive for balance, keep your family’s health goals in mind, and chances are you’ll do just fine! Go get’em Mom!

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