February is a great time to show your kids a little extra love by helping them take good care of their hearts. A paper published in December in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology noted that heart-healthy habits in adults are rooted in childhood and could be the key to preventing future heart disease.
Michelle Kittleson, M.D., is a Cedars-Sinai cardiologist and a mom of three boys, and she says that parents should focus on reducing their kids’ sugar intake and getting them moving more often – which she knows can be a challenge.
What are some easy ways for people to start adopting heart-healthy habits as a family?
First, stop buying soda. Milk and water are great for kids. Once kids realize soda just isn’t there, they adapt. And they will get used to life without it.
Once you’re used to the idea of no soda in the house, the next step is no packaged sweets in the house. It doesn’t mean they can’t have a cookie, cake or a brownie, but if you have to make it yourself, you will dole out less of it. If you just eliminate those two things, you get rid of such a huge sugar load on the household. And you’ll prove to your family that it absolutely can be done.
When it comes to the exercise piece of it, you pencil in “We’re going to the park for an hour” on the family calendar on Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon. The more often you do something, the more it becomes a routine, and I think making that commitment is a really easy way to start.
I think screen time is a later step. Make them earn it. If you want to watch that half hour of TV per child per night, it means that you need to have cleaned up everything, you need to do a lesson in your lesson book, you need to have practiced your piano or you need to have run around and gotten some fresh air outside.
What conversations should parents be having with their pediatricians about their children’s heart health?
The best way to use your pediatrician is to ask them:
Where do you think my kid is on the spectrum of healthy kids?
Where are his behaviors on the spectrum of healthy behaviors?
What could we do to make our family healthier?
I guarantee every pediatrician will be so happy to hear those questions.
What are some signs that a child might need to see a doctor and look into more serious intervention?
If your child falls on the overweight end of the spectrum, it’s time to talk to the pediatrician about goals for activity, goals for diet and goals to measure the response to these interventions.
It’s extraordinarily rare for a child to have some kind of cardiac problem, but if you notice that your child isn’t keeping up with other kids and doesn’t seem to like exercise – not because they’d rather be on their screens, but just because they seem to not keep up and be short of breath – then it’s always a good idea to discuss that with the pediatrician.