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Claire McCarthy, M.D. Headshot

Five Ways You Can Help Your Child Have a Healthy Heart for Life

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February is American Heart Month, which is a really good time to think not just about Valentine's Day, but your child's heart.

Chances are, that heart is healthy. But here's the thing: what you do now has everything to do with whether it stays healthy. The changes in the heart that lead to disease can start in childhood -- and habits we learn as children have a way of sticking with us (we old dogs are very familiar with the new tricks problem). After all, our job as parents is to raise our children to have a good and healthy future.

Which we all want to do -- the devil tends to be in the details. Hey, I'm a parent too. I know that as much as my job may be about the future, it's also about making it through each day. In the midst of chores and work and drop-offs and pickups and laundry and homework and shopping and everything else it can be hard to make lifestyle changes, especially when your kids may not be happy about all of them.

So here's my advice: think small and manageable. Small changes count. In fact, they can be the best way to start big changes. It's all about getting pointed in the right direction.

Make your diet healthier. Yes, ideally your children should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, as well as lots of whole grains and lean protein and not a lot of salt or sugar--that should always be the goal. But you are allowed to get there in little ways. Add one extra serving of vegetables a day (which may, for some kids, be three bites). Get rid of a fast food run (try cooking a casserole on the weekend for that night you don't have time to cook). Pack water bottles instead of juice for snack. Buy whole grain pasta (bet they don't even notice, especially if you smother it in tomato sauce). Try to make one change a week. Or one a month. Whatever works.

Be more active. Exercise is key to heart health. Sports teams can be a good idea, especially if kids can do them with their friends (more fun for them, more carpooling options for you). But really, the best exercise for children is play. So stop at a playground on the way home. If you've got a yard, kick the kids outside to play in it (have stuff like soccer balls or jump ropes handy). Dance in the living room. Buy video games that make your kids move their whole bodies, not just their fingers. An hour a day is the goal, but every minute is good.

Cut back on screen time. Screens aren't going away, and I don't expect anyone to unplug entirely. But too much screen time can lead to a sedentary lifestyle and excessive snacking (and a whole host of behavioral and school problems). So less is better. Don't turn the TV on in the morning (when I did that, I found it easier to get everyone dressed and out for school), don't have it on in the background when you do other things, shut if off during mealtimes. Get the TV and computer out of your kids' bedroom. Have some honest family discussions about which screen time is good or necessary -- and which isn't.

Know your child's risk factors. It's particularly important to know if your child's weight is healthy (and do something if it's not); talk to your doctor or use a Body Mass Index calculator like the one on the CDC website. Find out if anyone in the family has high cholesterol levels (get yours checked if you haven't), and if anyone had a stroke or heart attack when they were young (before 55 or so). Make sure your child's doctor knows this stuff, and ask when your child should get a cholesterol test.

Make heart health a family goal. Kids pay more attention to what we do than what we say, so be a good role model. Plus, you want to be alive and well to play with your grandkids, right? So eat another serving of vegetables yourself, join in the dancing, go for a walk together, reach for a book instead of the remote--and when your make an appointment for your child to have a checkup, make one for yourself, too.

Of all the gifts you can give your child, there's not much that's greater than the gift of a healthy heart (having a healthy parent is pretty great too). So get started today.

Here is a video of my son demonstrating the dancing in the living room idea: