Diseases of the heart and circulatory system tend to be seen as afflictions of middle-aged and older people, but they can begin to develop in adolescence and even childhood.
Genetics sometimes play a part, but unhealthy lifestyles are overwhelmingly the most important cause of poor heart health.
So it’s vital that parents, educators and kids understand the crucial importance of healthy diet and exercise in preventing problems in later life.
American Heart Month
In December 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson responded to a request from Congress and proclaimed that February 1964 would be the first American Heart Month.
At the time, diseases of the heart and the circulatory system were responsible for around half of all annual deaths in the US.
More than 50 years on, enormous progress has been made in the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease; and enormous sums have been spent on educating the public about the importance of healthy lifestyles.
But this February's American Heart Month is a reminder that heart attacks, coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure and other circulatory diseases are still the leading cause of death in the USA.
How to Achieve Ideal Heart Health
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the achievement of “ideal heart health” means, among other things, normal readings for blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Individuals can help themselves enormously in achieving this by:
- avoiding all tobacco
- maintaining a healthy body mass
- eating a healthy diet
- taking at least 60 minutes of moderate to strenuous exercise a day
Considerable progress has been made in educating the adult population about healthy living, perhaps most clearly visible in the declining numbers who smoke.
But like many nations across the world, the USA is in the grip of what has been called an epidemic of childhood obesity.
This matters because research evidence now strongly suggests that conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease begin to develop in childhood, and that childhood obesity is one of the most important risk factors.
The Causes of Childhood Obesity
The causes of obesity in children are much the same as for adults; and although their genetic inheritance does make some more likely than others to become obese, there is no doubt that poor diet and lack of exercise are the most important contributing factors.
Studies suggest that more than 90% of children have poor diets which depend heavily on refined carbohydrates for the provision of energy, mostly in the form of fizzy drinks and sugary snacks.
More worryingly still, only around 50% of 6- to 11-year-old boys — and 30% of girls — take the recommended 60 minutes of exercise each day. And this figure is even lower among teens.
The Benefits of Exercise
Apart from helping to maintain a healthy body weight, there’s overwhelming evidence of other substantial health benefits delivered by regular exercise. These include:
- normalizing cholesterol and other blood fat levels
- reducing blood pressure and heart rate
- strengthening the heart and lungs
- stabilizing blood sugar levels
Getting Kids Moving
A wide range of exercises can deliver these benefits, but for young people whose bodies are still developing, the emphasis should be on aerobic activities such as running, swimming, cycling and sports such as soccer, basketball and tennis, to name just a few.
In fact, almost any activity that elevates the heart and breathing rates for a sustained period will deliver fantastic benefits for cardiovascular health.
The key is to get kids moving by encouraging their participation in activities that they find enjoyable enough to make a regular part of their daily lives going forward.