You probably don’t think of your children when you hear terms like “coronary artery disease,” “stroke” and “high blood pressure.” But maybe you should. Steps you take now may keep your child from worrying about those terms later.
Inactivity is a major risk factor for heart disease, and creating good habits around physical activity at a young age can get your child off to a great heart-healthy start.
Elizabeth Saarel, MD, Cleveland Clinic’s Department Chair of Pediatric Cardiology, has answers to your questions about the link between activity and the heart. She also offers advice on motivating your kids to get moving.
Q: Why is exercise so important for the heart?
A: Our bodies are really made to be active. This activity keeps weight down and helps us lose extra fat, which is one thing that can lead to heart disease.
Also, the heart is a muscle and it needs exercise. If someone breaks an arm and doesn’t use it for a couple of weeks, the muscles atrophy. The same goes for the heart.
Regular exercise keeps the blood flowing and the coronary arteries open and clean. Physical activity pumps blood to all of the muscle groups, temporarily increasing the work the heart needs to do. The heart needs exercise to stay healthy, like tuning an engine to keep it in good working order.
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Q: How much exercise should my child get?
A: All children (ages 2 and older) should get a total of 60 minutes of exercise a day. This is cumulative, so children can get it throughout the day by doing things like walking to school in the morning for 15 minutes and spending 15 minutes on the playground after lunch.
Q: How can I motivate a child who doesn’t like to exercise?
A: That’s a hard group to motivate. You have to think about it the same way you would motivate kids who don’t like to study — you need some sort of reward system. If it’s not fun for them to be active, you can try to make it rewarding.
Take jumping rope for example — you can give them a goal to jump one minute a day and see if they can do it for five minutes by the end of the month. Use a behavioral modification chart or phone app to measure their activity. If they make their goal for the week, you can read a story to them or play a board game with them.
The best way to get them to exercise is to set a good example. Parents can show how important exercise is by doing family activities that center on being physically active. Taking walks with them or riding bikes together is a good time to build family engagement.
Q: What kind of exercise should my child do?
A: Aerobic. They need to move their arms and legs and breathe hard. Ideally, the activity will be rigorous, but even if they are just walking to school, they can walk steadily and breathe a little harder. They may not be working and sweating a lot, but they are getting their heart rate up.
Look for the kind of exercise where your kids are outside, running around, riding a bike, walking to school or playing dodge ball. Jumping rope is also really good and video dance games also can get the heart rate up.
Q: Are there any exercises that are less effective for the heart?
A: You really want to focus on movement-based physical activity. Exercises that fall outside of this are less effective for the heart, even if they get the heart pumping, such as lifting weights.