It’s 3:30 p.m. and your child has just arrived home from school. Is he or she:
(a) watching TV?
(b) playing on the computer?
(c) engaging in some form of cardiovascular exercise?
If you answered “a” or “b,” you’re not alone—as many as 40 percent of kids today have cardiac risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inactive lifestyles. Only 32 percent of children ages 6 to 17 meet minimum standards for cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, muscular strength and endurance. And, 40 percent of first graders have at least one coronary artery disease risk factor.
Engaging your child in some form of exercise is not only about having fun. The earlier a child becomes physically active, the more integral exercise will become to his or her everyday life—and the fewer chronic health problems your child will have later, according to a report by the American Heart Association (AHA).
For optimal cardiovascular fitness, the AHA recommends that children and adolescents participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activities every day. Some ways to get started:
- Show kids that being active is fun. Parental participation is a big motivating factor: Play games together or organize activities that involve walking, like a trip to the zoo.
- Concentrate on the positive aspects of exercise and stress participation, not performance. Give lots of reinforcement and recognition.
- Avoid activities that promote competition, embarrassment, discipline and regimentation.
- Try something new together, like in-line skating or hiking.
- Start gradually and build over time. Four 15-minute activity breaks are fine if your schedule doesn't allow a full hour at once.
- Find a local sports program.
- Encourage sports parties like swimming or skating or playground games.
The AHA also suggests asking your pediatrician to assess your child’s diet and physical activity level. If he or she is identified as high risk, check out your child’s cholesterol levels regularly and make dietary changes if called for.
Overall, AHA guidelines urge you to restrict high-fat foods after age 2 and to limit salt and sugar intake. Reduce your child’s sedentary time and limit television viewing to no more than two hours a day.