As we forge ahead into the new year, much attention will be given—as always—to our health, both current and aspirational. Millions of Americans have recently made resolutions to live better this coming year, to eat less sugar, to eat more greens, and of course, to move more. As we do, we should think as well of the youngest among us, about what they eat, how much they move, what forces govern their lifestyles, and how their routines both bad and good have significant implications on long-term heart health.
Recently, we polled more than 1,000 American parents, to better understand how they think about and act in accordance with preventive heart health guidelines, particularly with respect to nutrition and physical activity.
We began our inquiry on the important subject of parents as role models. Arguably, there is no more powerful influence on a child’s preventive health profile than behavior they see modeled by their parents. Of course, there are complex influences at every level of the family, and many adults struggle to eat well and be active even without the added burden of being an influence on children.
“Recent studies show that diet throughout the lifespan affects cardiovascular health, says Kendra Ward, MD, MSCI, director of the Preventive Cardiology Program at Lurie Children’s. “The diet a mother eats during pregnancy can impact the heart health of the child. Nutrition from infancy through adolescence can influence the heart health of a child, teen and adult. Dietary habits and levels of physical activity of young children are influenced by the eating and exercise habits of the family. During adolescence, these factors are also related to friend and peer group behavior, but a strong foundation of healthy eating and regular exercise tracks strongly into adulthood, despite other influences.”
Thinking of generational differences between parents and children today, the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle comes with unique challenges, especially when it comes to being physically active.
Of the parents we polled, 56 percent say they were more physically active as children than their children are now. Parents cited more time spent outdoors in their youth, and more time spent on phones and computers by their children today, as primary reasons for the divide. More than half of parents (61 percent) acknowledged they don’t let their children roam around the neighborhood as they once did. Likely related to this dynamic, 61 percent of parents also report that there are fewer other children available to play than when they were growing up.
A physically active childhood will most certainly include times when the child is active alone, or active exclusively with other children, but playtime with parents is important too. For many busy parents, that’s a lot to ask. Of those we polled, 51 percent said they regularly feel too tired to be active with their kids and 57 percent said they believe their child would be healthier if they (the parent) had more time and energy to play.
“A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke, multiple cancers and depression,” says Dr. Ward. “Physically active children decrease their risks for these diseases and are also less likely to experience ADHD and more likely to have improved academic performance.”
Trying to eat a nutritious diet seems as complex as ever, with so much information, so many opinions, so many options, and the vast influence of food marketers. Establishing a child’s relationship with food in a healthy and constructive way is also challenging. Parents today need to consider whether or how much to offer food as a reward, or as a source of comfort, or as leverage to compel certain behaviors from their children. A parent’s time and energy again factor into what’s possible: 49 percent admit if they had more time and energy to cook healthy meals, their child would be healthier.
Half of the parents we polled (51 percent) consider a high-sugar diet as much a health risk as smoking. Also among top concerns for parents about their children’s diet and heart health, is what children consume outside the home. According to UC Davis Health, many children consume between 35 and 40 percent of their calories at school.
As a result, in recent years, more parents and administrators are raising the idea of banning certain food and drinks from being accessible at school.
Unfortunately, many children already experience strain on their cardiovascular systems due to excess weight. The CDC estimates nearly 1 in 5 children and adolescents is obese. Of the parents we polled, 23 percent report their children gained weight during the pandemic. Of those children who were already overweight when the pandemic started, 57 percent gained more weight.
We asked parents of children who are overweight what their biggest challenges are in working with their child to maintain a healthy weight.
We recognize that establishing heart-healthy habits is simple in principle but difficult for many individuals and families. Particularly with children, it's important to be patient and encouraging, to not make them feel ashamed of what are often very natural impulses to consume unhealthy food and drinks and engage in sedentary activities. Children thrive on routine, so making healthy eating and physical activity part of a consistent, structured lifestyle—one that includes parents—will go a long way in making it stick.
Between December 16-17, 2021, we polled 1,006 American parents of at least one child between the ages of five and 18. Respondents were 60 percent female, 40 percent male, and ranged in age from 25 to 65, with an average age of 41.
For parents of multiple children, we asked them to answer questions in consideration of the single child whose heart health they are most concerned about.
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Feel free to use this data and research with proper attribution linking to this study. When you do, please give credit and link to luriechildrens.org/