Heart Health for Kids: Exercise & Nutrition

When it comes to heart health, nutrition and exercise go hand in hand. Every child needs 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! Work with your child to make a specific goal and try to reach it over 3-6 months. A goal can be anything from “decrease blood pressure” to “finish a 5k race over the summer.” Setting a goal gives a purpose to exercise and can give you satisfaction once it's achieved. Here are some of the benefits exercise has for both children and adults:

  • Maintains or lowers blood pressure or heart rate
  • Helps with weight control (along with a healthy diet)
  • Maintains or lowers blood cholesterol levels
  • Strengthens skeletal and cardiac muscle
  • Decreases the risk of developing type two diabetes 
  • Reduces stress, which can keep your heart rate low
  • Improves sleep 
  • It's fun!

Following the FITT Principle

The FITT principle is a framework used to design effective workout programs for people of all fitness levels and goals. The acronym stands for frequency, intensity, time and type. Here's a breakdown of each part of the FITT principle: 

  • Frequency: How often should my child be physically active? For aerobic exercise, your child can exercise every day, regardless of age. For muscle and bone strengthening exercises, at least 3 days each week is recommended.
  • Intensity: How hard should my child be working? Your child's 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. 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? Your child should include at least 60 minutes of activity each day. This can be aerobic exercise or a combination of 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 time.
  • Type: What type of exercises can my child do? There are plenty of activities to choose from, but if you have any specific questions about safety be sure to consult your child's pediatrician. Here are some examples of heart-healthy exercises:
Aerobic Exercises Strengthening Exercises
Running Push-ups
Playing tag Sit-ups
Biking Planks
Soccer Squats
Jumping rope Lunges
Brisk walking Hopping
Skateboarding Skipping
Rollerblading Gymnastics
Burpees Volleyball
Basketball Bridges
Swinging Playing at the park


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: Half of your plate should consist of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Aim for color and variety to help keep blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar at healthy levels. 
  • Whole grains: One-fourth 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: One-fourth 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% fruit juice.

Tips for Success

Starting something new by yourself can be daunting. Instead, get the whole family involved! Exercise with your children and encourage them to participate so everyone can help achieve a healthier lifestyle together. Here are some tips to make lifestyle changes easier:

  • Make sure children are adequately hydrated before, during and after exercise.
  • Get your children involved in meal planning. 
  • 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 or experiences any symptoms (chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness or fainting) check with your pediatrician before starting an exercise program.

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. Learn more about Lurie Children’s Heart Center.

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