Building a Heart-Healthy Family Lifestyle
The health of our children sets a significant precedent for their eventual health as adults, especially when it comes to cardiovascular risk factors and disease. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada estimates that 31 percent of Canadian children and youth are either overweight or obese. Of these, four out of five children will grow up to be overweight adults, increasing their risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Studies looking at the health of overweight and obese children are finding that despite the extra weight, most children are in fact undernourished and nutrient deficient. This is likely due to the prevalence of high-sugar, processed foods now commonplace in the standard North American diet, which offer little nutritional value.
These statistics are alarming. Parents play an important role in educating and modelling the foundations of a healthy lifestyle. Establishing good habits in childhood confers a greater likelihood that these habits will continue into adulthood, imparting lifelong benefits. If a child is eating too many unhealthy foods and getting too little activity, both their weight and cardiovascular health become areas of concern. But with education and prevention, we can provide the tools to ensure that our children’s health supports their hearts for years to come.
6 Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Create opportunities for your child to get more exercise, whether it be joining a sport or daily trips to the park.
Move more yourself! Kids watch everything we do and modelling an active lifestyle will encourage them to do the same.
Talk frequently about the importance of healthy food and the differences between whole and processed foods.
Engage your child in shopping, cooking, and menu making.
Make dinner time family time.
Teach your child how to read food labels and make a game of it when shopping or making food decisions.
Tips for Planning Family Meals
When it comes to a healthy diet, aiming for three balanced meals a day is a great place to start. Ideally, every meal should include:
1-3 servings of vegetables (½ the plate) at each meal, in a variety of colours, textures, and flavours is a great way to ensure your little one gets as many nutrients as possible. Try different combinations to find the magic mixture that appeals to the pickiest of eaters.
1 serving of protein (¼ of the plate) helps balance blood sugar and provides much needed building blocks at the cellular level.
A healthy source of fat (1-2 tablespoons) helps balance blood sugar and is important for neural and gastrointestinal health. Options include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, and nut butters.
Low-glycemic carbohydrates (¼ of the plate), in the form of whole, unrefined grains are the best option to prevent blood sugar spikes. While an important part of our diet for gastrointestinal regulation and energy, carbohydrates shouldn’t make up the majority of our meals.
Water is the best hydrator and should be treated as your child’s main beverage. Avoiding sugary drinks (including fruit juices) is one of the easiest changes to make and has a positive impact on healthy weight. Note that liquids should be avoided at meals in order to maximize the stomach’s acidity when digesting.
Fruits, Vegetables, and Healthy Snacks
Snacks are often where we get stuck for ideas. This is a great time for fruit! Providing fruit at snack and dessert time instead of sugar-packed processed foods ensures that your kiddos are getting valuable nutrients. Having a fat or protein source at snack times will continue to ensure balanced blood sugar levels. This is important in preventing the excessive dips and spikes in energy levels throughout the day, which also tend to contribute to mood disorders.
Heart Smart Snacks
Apple and nut butter
Vegetable sticks and hummus or guacamole
Fruit smoothie with a tablespoon of nut butter or coconut oil
Nuts and seeds (either solo or made into a homemade protein bar)
How Much Exercise Do Kids Need?
Humans naturally want to move. Our bodies perform better, feel better, function better, and stay healthier when we engage in regular movement or exercise. Children are great examples of our natural desire for movement—they never stop! The health benefits of physical activity are numerous—but for cardiovascular health in particular—regular activity strengthens the heart, reduces and maintains blood pressure, supports a healthy weight, and decreases future risk factors for cardiovascular events.
Our connected world often means we spend too much time engaged in sedentary activity like screen time. Many children are far surpassing the current recommendations for screen time, which is no more than one hour a day for children from two to five years of age, and no exposure at all for children under two1. Putting down the tablet and putting a pair of sneakers on your littles more often is the way to go!
The minimum requirements for exercise recommendations set out by ParticipACTION in conjunction with the Public Health Agency of Canada are as follows:
Babies and Toddlers (0–4)
Under one year: 30 minutes of “tummy time” for very young infants. Energetic floor-based activities and positions throughout the day for older infants.
One to two years: 180 minutes spent throughout the day in a variety of energetic intensities.
Two to four years: 180 minutes spent throughout the day in a variety of energetic intensities with at least one-third of it spent in higher intensity.2
Children and Teenagers (5–17)
60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity.
3 days per week, vigorous activity should be muscle and bone-strengthening type.
Any number of hours of lighter physical and unstructured activities.3
Moderate activity is defined as your child breathing harder with an increased heart rate. They should be able to talk to you without breathing difficulties but would not be able to sing their favourite song. These activities include walking, bike riding, yoga, and skateboarding. Vigorous activity is defined as needing to catch their breath while talking, and includes running, skating, jump rope, tag, and high intensity sports (soccer, hockey, etc.). Muscle and bone strengthening activities are activities that require resistance and impact such as push-ups, climbing stairs, hiking, riding a bike, and most sports.
Family-Friendly Activities to Build Healthy Habits
Daily unstructured activity such as shoveling, gardening, dancing, and playing tag.
Physical family activities like hiking, swimming, or Frisbee games.
Activities that provide your child joy. We are more likely to engage in activities that we find pleasurable!
My favourite strategy for creating healthy habits in children is for parents to model the lifestyle choices they want their children to acquire. Including healthy diet and movement into your own daily routine demonstrates their importance far more clearly than anything you can impart through words, sending the message that healthy choices are a priority in your family. If your child is struggling with maintaining a healthy weight, encourage positive ideas around healthy habits, food, and movement. Build their self-esteem by focusing on their accomplishments and things they are already doing well, reinforcing positive behaviour rather than punishing less ideal conduct.
Healthy habits should be fun and full of love, which happens to be the final ingredient of holistic heart health.
Want to learn more? Check out more EcoParent, including Healthy Lifestyle Habits for Child Development, Helping Children Have a Healthy Relationship with Food, and Bring Back Outdoor Play To Our Indoor Kids!