February 14th is Valentine’s Day. When it comes to matters of the heart, one of the best ways to show love to your little ones is seeing to the health of their hearts. You may think it’s a little early to be concerned about your child’s heart health, but research shows that habits developed in childhood have implications for long term health. 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. Here are some things you should be doing now to make sure your child’s heart is healthy for years to come.
Get active! Various health authorities, from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the World Health Organization (WHO), recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily for both children and adults. Physical activity doesn’t have to be a boot camp-style workout, but can be as simple as running around the backyard or park, riding a bicycle, dancing, or going for a walk. Involving your child in team sports is a good way to ensure they are getting the recommended daily amount of exercise as well. Children are even more likely to stick with exercise routines if you do it as a family. So, put on those tennis shoes and get both your and your child’s heart pumping. They’ll thank you for it later.
Provide a heart-healthy diet. Children should have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Additionally, you should aim to minimize the amounts of saturated fats and sugar in your child’s diet. Switch that whole milk out for one percent milk. Cook lean meats like turkey and fish. Limit juice to four to five ounces daily, and increase your child’s fiber intake by adding whole grain bread and pasta options to their diet.
Is your child a picky eater who doesn’t like heart-healthy foods? Take them to the grocery store with you and have them help choose which items from the heart- healthy list looks appealing to them.
Let them participate in food preparation. Set a good example by showing them what eating healthy meals and snacks looks like.
Promote a positive self-image. Many children are struggling with poor body image and low self-esteem. This can lead to issues with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, all of which have negative implications for long term heart health. Focus less on your child’s weight and appearance and more on developing healthy habits. Praise them for things they do well. Remind them of their strengths, and support and encourage them in areas where they are not so strong. The important thing is to keep your language and attitude positive.
Schedule pre-season check-ups for your child athlete and keep your regular well visit appointments. Student athletes are more active than the average child and are prone to injuries. Additionally, some children may be at risk for sudden cardiac death if they have previously undiagnosed heart conditions. Making an appointment at least six weeks prior to the start of their season allows time to treat any issues identified, rehabilitate existing injuries, and perform a full cardiovascular assessment. Even if your child is not an athlete, keeping their annual well visits can ensure that any changes to weight or blood pressure, that can compromise heart health, are identified early.
Hug your child. Doctor’s orders! Research shows that wonderful things happen when children receive hugs regularly. Not only is it important for nervous system and brain development, but hugs cause the release of oxytocin (the “feel good” hormone) and limits the release of cortisol (the stress hormone). Lower cortisol and stress levels mean less stress for the heart in the long run. If your child isn’t a hugger, a high five will do just as well. The point is to let your child know that you love them and are there for them unconditionally.
The foundation for good heart health in adulthood is laid during childhood. Helping your children develop heart-healthy habits now puts them on the road to a long, happy life. Remember, your pediatrician is a valuable resource for ensuring that your child’s heart is a healthy one. Don’t hesitate to reach out for advice on things you can do to ensure your child’s heart is healthy for years to come.
• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in Nassau, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram @mykidsdoc242.