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Sep 17, 2016

The Importance of Promoting Heart Health in Children

Experts highlight early education about heart health for prevention later in life.

Promoting cardiovascular health in children is key to preventing heart disease later in life, according to a recent scientific statement released by the American Heart Association.

Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this statement titled “Cardiovascular Health Promotion in Children: Challenges and Opportunities for 2020 and Beyond” focused on the need to address heart health at a young age. The primary focus of the statement was to review ideal cardiovascular health in children and to identify steps to improve heart health in children with poor cardiovascular health.

First, researchers highlighted the importance of key health metrics in children, including weight, physical activity, diet, cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and smoking status. For ideal health, children should get at least one hour of physical activity a day, have a well-balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight and never try smoking. Ideal health is also defined as having normal cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. By meeting these standards, children have significantly lower cardiovascular risk both now and later in life.

However, the concern is that few children actually meet all of these guidelines. For example, authors note that from 2003–2004, less than half of children ages 6–11 got at least an hour of exercise a day. Worse, only 10% of boys and 5% of girls aged 16–19 met physical activity guidelines. Data from 2007–2008 also showed that less than 1% of children between 2 and 19 years old met ideal criteria for a healthy diet, which includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and limits consumption of salt and sugar-sweetened beverages.

As a result, authors highlight the importance of improving cardiovascular health in children with poor or intermediate heart health. What it comes down to is a combination of education, policy changes and improved screening for cardiovascular risk factors in children.

It’s important that children and adults understand what a heart-healthy lifestyle is, along with the importance of meeting current guidelines. Policy changes, particularly in schools, can also go a long way in helping children live healthier lifestyles. For example, offering healthier options in school cafeterias and enhancing gym glasses helps promote better diets and regular physical activity. And finally, improved screening for conditions like high blood sugar can identify children with increased cardiovascular risk and help prevent or delay development of complications down the road.

With these changes, authors hope to address concerning health trends among children and set the stage for a healthier future. With additional research, authors also encourage continued monitoring of cardiovascular health in children and the development of new strategies to improve health in children and adolescents.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How much exercise do I need?
  • Regular physical activity is important for both children and adults. According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans:

    • Children and adolescents should get 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily.
    • Optimum exercise levels for adults includes:
      • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (or a combination of the two) each week.
      • Activity spread across the week with periods of aerobic exercise of at least 10 minutes at a time.
      • Muscle strengthening activities 2 or more days a week.
  • What is a heart-healthy diet?

  • A heart-healthy diet is full of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and includes low-fat dairy, fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet. It’s important to limit intake of added sugars, salt (sodium) and bad fats (saturated and trans fats).

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