Of all the issues kids think about day to day, heart disease typically isn’t one of them.

In fact, parents are likely more concerned about their own heart health and that of their parents than their children’s.

That’s because cardiovascular disease is often an illness adults must face, and is in fact the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.

Health care professionals, however, are becoming increasingly concerned that a rise in childhood obesity and a decrease in physical activity could affect cardiac health among today’s youth.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing kids come in at an early age with high blood pressure,” said Dr. Daniel Gruenstein, chief of cardiology at The University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. “If it isn’t affecting their hearts at a young age, it certainly will when they become adults.”

Gruenstein said he also is seeing more pediatric patients in his clinic who are obese — leaving them short of breath and experiencing chest pain. Often, he said, they’re deconditioned from a lack of physical activity, but sometimes the problem is worse.

“There are sadly some teens who are obese where there hearts aren’t functioning the way they should,” he said.

Some medical studies even have suggested that heart disease begins in youth, when cholesterol buildup can start to occur in coronary arteries. A child’s weight isn’t always an indication of heart health, either.

“Just because you’re skinny doesn’t mean your heart is healthy,” Gruenstein said.

The bottom line, health care professionals said, is that prevention of heart disease begins early, and families can start working now to ensure children have healthy hearts for decades beyond their youth.

Leading by example

The most important action parents can take to help children begin making heart-healthy choices is to lead by example, said L.J. Mattraw, program director at Parisi Speed School, located inside Franciscan Health Fitness Centers Schererville.

“Children are influenced greatly by the people around them, mainly by their parents, but also peers, teachers, coaches and leaders,” he said. “Children respond very well to enthusiasm, and if we can show them we’re passionate about living a healthy life, it will be much easier for them to buy into it as well.”

Getting kids to understand the importance of heart health can be challenging, Gruenstein said.

“I don’t think fear tactics work a whole lot with kids,” he said. “Thirty years from now, you want to be healthy and not have heart problems, but it’s too abstract for them.”

That’s why role modeling is key — setting the tone for the entire family, he said.

“If there’s one thing all of us can do — kids and adults — to significantly improve the quality of health and decrease the risk of heart disease, it’s getting 30 minutes a day of some active movement,” Gruenstein said.

He suggested activities where participants breathe a little faster than normal, but not at the rate where a person can’t hold a conversation with someone.

“Getting your kids active is the biggest gift you can give them,” Gruenstein said. “If you do it together with your kids, it’s an even bigger gift for yourself.”

Finding the joy

Kids and parents should focus on finding a physical activity they enjoy, Mattraw said.

“If we teach kids to associate physical activity with something they enjoy and have fun doing, they are more likely to continue it moving into adulthood,” he said.

Personal trainer and fitness instructor Foo Samis-Smith, who works with kids at Community Hospital Fitness Pointe, said interweaving exercise with other enjoyable activities is an easy way to get 30 minutes of activity in each day.

“A 30-minute TV show has a good 10 minutes of commercials,” she said. “Every time a commercial comes on, you can march in place. Next time a commercial comes on, you can do sit-ups.”

Breaking up your exercise routine into shorter segments throughout the day allows even the busiest family members to get the minimum recommended 30 minutes of activity per day, Samis-Smith said.

“People will say, 'I don’t have 30 minutes,’ but you do have 10 minutes,” she said.

Understanding that an expensive gym membership isn’t needed or that following the lead of participants on weight-loss TV shows isn’t realistic is important as well, Gruenstein said.

Simply briskly walking on the treadmill while watching TV, heading to the roller skating rink or taking advantage of community kids programs can make a difference in heart health.

Even video gaming systems include sensors that read body movement, encouraging players to get up and move in order for a game to operate.

“My strong message to parents and kids is you don’t have to be skinny or muscle-bound to be healthy,” he said. “But you have to take the steps to be healthy, and the first step is daily activity.”

Family members who do this, he said, will be amazed at the difference in how they feel in just a month.

“No child or teenager should get out of breath walking up stairs, but so many of them do,” Gruenstein said.

Exploring the kitchen

Introducing young children to different types of food early is key to expanding their palates.

“If you wait until kids are 6 or 7 to try fish, they’re less likely to decide that’s one of their favorite foods,” Gruenstein said.

Even at a young age, children should have fruits and vegetables comprise the majority of their diets, he said.

“If you start on that after spending the first four years of their life eating chicken nuggets, it’s hard to make that transition,” he said.

For parents of school-aged kids, however, there are still several ways to get their children interested in exploring healthy foods.

“One of the things I’ve found with my own kids is getting them much more involved in the food-making process,” Gruenstein said. “Having them help pick out menus, getting a healthy cookbook with pictures, having the kids pick out the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. It’s even better if you have a garden where the kids can grow the food themselves.”

Kelly Devine Rickert, a Franciscan WELLCARE health coach, said the best foods to fight heart disease at any age are high in fiber, including 100 percent whole grains, oats, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes.

“Some kids, however, may not enjoy the taste of 100 percent whole grain foods, such as breads and pastas, but there is good news,” she said. “Many products have whole grain white versions, so they look and taste like white bread or pasta, but they really have more fiber.”

Though she said whole grain versions are always best, this is a great alternative for picky eaters.

“When looking at labels, compare the fiber content,” Rickert said. “Choose breads, cereals and grain products with at least 3 to 5 grams a serving.”

Other healthy options include oatmeal with fresh fruit, whole grain crackers and Popsicles made with fruit and vegetables.

Gruenstein said parents also can hide nutrients in smoothies by adding spinach, blueberries or almonds, for example.

“When it’s all blended up, you can’t really taste it,” he said.

Samis-Smith adds parents should encourage their children to try foods, but not force them to eat something they don’t like.

“That’s how well-balanced nutrition develops,” she said.

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