Heart Health for Kids: Exercise & Nutrition

When it comes to heart health, nutrition and exercise go hand in hand. It’s important for every child to participate in daily physical activity and eat a healthy diet. Below, Katie Baschen, MS, Exercise Physiologist at Lurie Children’s Heart Center, provides tips on how parents can get their kids moving and offers up some kid-friendly meal ideas. 

Starting an Exercise Plan

First, you need some motivation! Make a specific goal and try to reach it over the course of 3-6 months. A goal can be anything from “decrease my blood pressure” to “finish a 5k race over the summer.” Setting a goal gives you a purpose to exercise and can give you satisfaction once you achieve it. Here are some of the benefits exercise has for both children and adults:

  • Maintains or lowers blood pressure at rest and with exercise
  • Maintains or lowers the heart rate at rest and with exercise
  • Helps with weight control (along with a healthy diet)
  • Maintains or lowers blood cholesterol levels
  • Strengthens skeletal and cardiac muscle. Improves skeletal and cardiac muscles’ abilities to utilize oxygen circulating through your body, allowing your body to be more efficient
  • Decreases the risk of developing type two diabetes by using stored glucose in the body, reducing blood sugar levels
  • Reduces stress, which can keep your heart rate low
  • Improves sleep
  • IT IS FUN!

FITT Principle

Frequency: How often should my child be physically active?

  • Aerobic exercise: Every day! Whether your child is 2 or 18 years old, they should participate in some form of physical activity every day.
  • Muscle and bone strengthening: At least 3 days each week.

Intensity: How hard should my child be working?

  • Their physical activity should range from moderate to vigorous levels of intensity. These levels are described as an elevation in heart rate over a prolonged period of time.  Moderate exercise would be 50-70% of heart rate max, with vigorous exercise being 70-85% of heart rate max.

Time: How long should my child be active for each day?

  • At least 60 minutes of activity each day. This can be aerobic exercise or a combination with muscle and bone strengthening.  The 60 minutes of activity can be done all at once or accumulated over the day.  However, physical activity has the most health benefits when your child’s heart rate is elevated for a prolonged period of time.

Type: What type of exercises can my child do?

  • Aerobic
    • Running 
    • Playing tag 
    • Biking 
    • Soccer 
    • Basketball 
    • Dancing 
    • Brisk walking 
    • Jumping rope 
    • Burpees
    • Jumping on a trampoline 
    • Skateboarding
    • Rollerblading
    • Kickboxing 
  • Muscle and Bone Strengthening
    • Push-ups 
    • Sit-ups 
    • Planks 
    • Squats
    • Bridges 
    • Lunges
    • Jumping rope 
    • Running 
    • Hopping 
    • Skipping
    • Gymnastics 
    • Volleyball 
    • Basketball

Heart-Healthy Diet and Nutrition

Nutrition is a key element in keeping your child's heart and body healthy. A balanced diet is one with food that contains whole grains, vitamins and minerals but is low in salt and added sugars. The Healthy Eating Plate works as a great guide for creating healthy, nourishing meals with each plate including:

  • Fruits and vegetables: ½ of your plate should consist of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are full which of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Aim for color and variety to help keep blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar at healthy levels. 
  • Whole grains: ¼ of your plate should consist of whole and intact grains like whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, oats and brown rice. Whole grains are not only good for heart health, but they also tend to have lower amounts of calories than enriched grains. 
  • Lean protein: ¼ of your plate should include lean meats or vegetarian alternatives like fish, poultry, eggs, beans and nuts. Try to limit red or processed meats like bacon or sausage to cut down on your intake of harmful fats. 
  • Healthy oils or fats: Cook or top your food with vegetable oils like olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower or peanut, which are good for the heart. 
  • Hydration: Every meal should include a glass of water for hydration. Skip the sugary drinks like soda and instead opt for a vitamin-D-rich glass of skim milk or 100 percent fruit juice.

Tips for Success

Starting something new and making a commitment can be daunting but starting an exercise plan the whole family can participate in is a great way to spend time together and achieve a healthier lifestyle!

  • Get the whole family involved! Exercise with your children and encourage them to participate
  • Make sure children are adequately hydrated before, during and after exercise
  • Involve your children in helping plan your meals each week to get them excited about nutrition
  • Read all food labels and check the nutrition labels for serving sizes
  • Wear gym shoes and appropriate clothing for exercise
  • Check out local park districts or activities at school for physical activity programs
  • If your child has a cardiac health history, check with your pediatrician prior to starting an exercise program
  • If your child experiences any symptoms while exercising (i.e. chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness or fainting) please contact your pediatrician

Lurie Children’s Preventive Cardiology Program is committed to improving the health of children at risk for heart disease. We care for children who have cardiac risk factors for heart and vascular disease which may include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and a family history of heart attacks and strokes. Lurie Children’s Heart Center is the top-ranked pediatric heart center in Illinois. 

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