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Take Health to Heart

Health Tips for kids

Good eating, exercise habits vital for kids

The luck of the Irish might work when it comes to finding a four-leaf clover or a pot of gold, but when it comes to heart health, your little leprechauns don’t need good fortune, they need healthy habits.

Since the majority of heart attacks occur well past middle age, a potential problem a half-century away may not be high on your list of worries when it comes to your child’s health. However, it’s well-established that heart disease begins to develop in childhood, says Dr. J. Blaine John, a pediatric and fetal cardiologist at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital.

“Although kids don’t typically show the symptoms of heart disease, the silent buildup of plaque [fatty deposits] that may start in childhood can have a serious impact on their adult life,” says John. “Teaching your kids to follow a healthy lifestyle is a gift that may help reduce their risk for heart disease later in life.”

Risk factors in childhood include obesity, diabetes, an inactive lifestyle, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.

“All children between the ages 8 and 10 should undergo a heart-risk evaluation, which includes measurements of body mass index and blood pressure, as well as questions about diet, exercise and exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke,” John advises.

In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children older than two with a family history of high cholesterol or heart attacks before the age of 50 should have their cholesterol levels checked.

In the United States, the greatest cause of heart disease is obesity. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of obese adolescents has tripled during the past three decades. Nearly one-third of children in the United States are overweight or at risk for being overweight. Researchers estimate that three out of five overweight children ages 5 to 17 have at least one risk factor for heart and circulatory diseases.

Where exercise is concerned, it need not be complicated. Playing outdoors, bicycling, swimming, organized sports and dancing are great exercise options and should be encouraged. For children 5 and older, the American Heart Association recommends:

  • At least 30 minutes of enjoyable, moderate-intensity activities every day or two 15-minute or three 10-minute periods of activity appropriate for the age, gender and development of your child
  • At least 30 minutes of vigorous physical activities three to four days a week to maintain heart and lung fitness
  • Limiting TV watching, computer use and play with handheld computer games
  • Not using food as a reward for your children’s accomplishments; instead, plan a physical activity that they will enjoy
  • Signing your children up for a sports camp or one that focuses on physical activity as a way to keep them moving during the summer.

The AHA also has dietary guidelines for children ages 2 and older, with good reason. According to research published in its journal Circulation, children who consumed fruits and vegetables once a day had healthier arteries as adults than those who reported eating fruits and vegetables less than twice a month. The AHA’s recommendations include:

  • Keeping total fat to no more than 30 percent of daily calories
  • Keeping saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of daily calories
  • Holding dietary cholesterol to less than 300 mg per day
  • Using the “age + 5” guideline for calculating the appropriate amount of fiber. Using the formula, a 7-year-old should eat 12 grams of fiber (7 + 5 = 12). When their daily calorie intake reaches 1,500 or more, increase fiber to 25 grams
  • Consuming at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day and other foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital’s “Why Weight?” is a weight management program that addresses healthy eating in a fun and interesting way. Call 813-443-2064 or visit to learn more.

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