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Find out how to keep your precious child’s heart healthy. At some point in their lives, most adults are educated on the importance of caring for their hearts, but do we pay the same attention to our children’s hearts? Adults are told to exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, reduce their stress levels and get plenty of sleep and rest. And the older a person gets, the more doctors tend to advise a focus on cardiovascular wellness.
But did you know that heart health is a concern as early as infancy? Research published in the journal Proceedings of the Nutrition Society found that endothelial health can be impacted during the first decade of life. The endothelium is an organ that lines 60,000 miles of blood vessels throughout a child’s body (100,000 miles in adults). Its primary function is to produce Nitric Oxide (NO), a critical signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system that tells the blood vessels to expand or contract in response to pressures placed on the arteries. Basically, Nitric Oxide helps the cardiovascular system function smoothly. A healthy child will have a healthy endothelium that’s producing plenty of Nitric Oxide.
In the past, as recently as 50 years ago or so, endothelial health wasn’t as much of a concern in young children. But changes in diet (fast, convenient food that lacks critical nutrients) and activity (more time indoors using electronic devices) have resulted in a generation that needs to refocus on heart health. Kids need adult guidance to get back to the basics: good food, lots of movement, and a life of happiness and vitality.
Kids don’t exercise the same way adults do, but they can still be active. Set limits on the amount of screen time your child is allowed each day, and encourage outside play. If weather doesn’t allow outdoor time, promote active play indoors to keep your kids moving. They don’t need to be playing catch, but even hide and seek is more active than sitting on the couch! Or, make a game out of doing chores, such as cleaning the house. Consider going to a local community center or gym. Most cities have low-cost options that offer endless opportunities to get your child moving. For younger children, libraries often offer a “music time” to let them wiggle and move around. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends at least 60 minutes of daily activity for children and adolescents, so be creative in how you get your child moving.
Most areas have activity groups for young children. And as your children reach school age, and especially into their teens, organized sports are a great way to get them moving. Your child will learn a sport, develop coordination, make friends, and discover the importance of teamwork all while keep their heart healthy.
Even if you’re feeding your child healthy, balanced meals, it can be easy to reach for a quick and convenient snack between mealtimes. Instead, opt for heart healthier choices like celery sticks with peanut butter, avocado on whole wheat toast, or apple slices paired with low-fat cheese. Remember that it’s just as important for children to eat healthy between meals as it is at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There’s nothing sweeter than a child’s laugh, and it turns out that cracking jokes can help support heart health. Research conducted at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore found that “laughter is linked to healthy function of blood vessels.” The researchers found that laughter causes the endothelium to dilate, or expand, in order to increase blood flow. So, have fun and get your child laughing to help keep their heart healthy.
Families who move together stay healthy together. If you like to jog, then ask your child to accompany you on their bike. Go for an after-dinner walk; turn off the television and head to the local bowling alley for a game or two; shoot hoops at the local park; or even walk to the grocery store. It doesn’t matter how you move—just that you do it.
Good habits in childhood and adolescence set the foundation for a lifetime of wellness. Be an example of healthy living, and encourage kids to adopt heart-healthy habits. It’s never too early to start focusing on the heart.
Written by Louis Ignarro, Ph.D. Dr. Ignarro is a member of both the Editorial and Nutrition Advisory Boards of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute and receives compensation for his endorsement of Herbalife® products.